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Thursday 23 February 2017

‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

Published by Sphere,
6 April 2017.
ISBN: 978-0-7515-6638-3(HB)

Some debut authors tread carefully, and don’t step too far outside their comfort zone. Others go for broke, and produce chunky volumes which explore complex themes.

Claire Evans is one of the second kind. The Fourteenth Letter takes an eventful period of Victorian   history when science moved forward quickly and new ideas were rife, and weaves an intricate web of secrets, deceits and high-concept beliefs into a story which grows more and more gripping as it progresses.

It opens with dramatic promise: a young woman is murdered at her engagement party by a naked man who appears from nowhere and disappears the moment the deed is done. Then several apparently unconnected storylines are set in motion. A young man looks for ways to further his career. A young American woman who could give Calamity Jane a run for her money is spying on a London townhouse. Another young woman is applying for a post as a governess. Then finally, a Link: a detective is tasked to look into the murder. 

Suicide, kidnapping, more murder and gangland shenanagins follow in short order, and soon the game’s afoot and the reader has his or her work cut out to keep track of all the threads. There are dark doings at an exclusive London club, and darker ones at a thieves’ den in Whitechapel; even Scotland Yard isn’t immune, and the darkness casts its shadows over science, politics, even the law.

For a rookie novelist, Claire Evans has a deft hand with characters. Some are larger than life: Pincott the East End crime-boss; Vicomtesse Adeline, as wicked as she is beautiful; Savannah Shelton, gun-totin’ chancer with a heart of gold, all the way from Arizona with a price on her head. Others are more down-to-earth, but have history that makes them interesting: plodding but effective detective Harry Treadway; callow youth William Lamb, who turns from green lad into capable man in the course of the adventure. Discovering how each of these diverse personalities fits into the convoluted narrative was what kept me reading long past my bedtime.

Evans also paints a convincing picture of late Victorian England, complete with pickpockets, Darwinian science, hints of the Wild West (Buffalo Bill’s famous show did actually visit London in 1887) and the huge gulf between rich and poor. She even takes the reader into Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam, residence and prison of people diagnosed as insane.

I did have a small problem with Evans’s tendency to mix real history with her invented version, but that was a minor point. The Fourteenth Letter is well researched, well plotted, well written and a jolly good read.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Claire Evans is an established business specialist in the UK television industry. After finishing her law degree, she qualified as an accountant, but realising her mistake quickly ran away to work at the National Theatre before finally landing a job at the BBC. Once there, she rose through the ranks to head up operations and business affairs across the TV commissioning teams. In drama, she led the BBC's commercial relationships with the Independent production sector and a wide range of international co-producers and distributors.
She left the BBC in 2013 to pursue her writing career. Since then she has advised a number of drama and film production companies, most recently working on The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster. She is also now the Chief Operating Officer at Two Brothers Pictures Ltd, the company set up by Harry and Jack Williams, the creators of The Missing.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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