If a reader didn’t know better, it would be easy to believe that The Infidel Stain, M.J. Carter’s 19th-century crime thriller, was written by a contemporary of Dickens or a precursor to Conan Doyle.
The people, the places and the politics of 1840s London come to life so vividly that it simply has to be the genuine article. Perhaps the work was first published in serialized installments in The Strand Magazine, then languished in obscurity for more than a century before being reprinted.
The prosaic truth, though, is that it’s just an ingenious imitation.
The Infidel Stain is the second book in a series featuring Jeremiah Blake and William Avery. Blake is a Holmesian hero: brilliant, enigmatic, contemptuous of class distinctions. Avery is the sidekick/biographer: observantly recording everything, yet too blind to grasp any of its importance.
The mismatched duo originally came together in The Strangler Vine, a dangerous rescue mission in the jungles of colonial India. In The Infidel Stain, they investigate a series of gory murders involving London’s “gutter press.” (The U.K. paperback edition will be less-colorfully titled The Printer’s Coffin.)
Before turning her hand to thrillers, the author wrote painstakingly researched nonfiction: Anthony Blunt: His Lives (about a leading English art historian and Soviet spy) and George, Nicholas and Wilhelm (about the dysfunctional rulers of Germany, Russia and Great Britain and the road to World War I).
It should come as no surprise, then, that Carter’s new history mystery series is rich with nuance. Hers isn’t an idealized portrait of Victorian London. Instead, she explores a politically volatile time in which the oppressed poor and working class finally has begun to demand its rights.
The history lesson never tastes like medicine, though, thanks to a ripping good story that keeps the pages turning.
The Infidel Stain
- By M.J. Carter
- G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.99
- Audio: HighBridge Audio, $39.99; narrated by actor Alex Wyndham.