Book Number: 2
Read this book for: Victorian London, gritty crime fiction, vice investigations, complex investigations, sexual content
Quick Review: A twisting, semi-historical set of intertwined mysteries, steeped in the repressed but explosive sexual landscape of Victorian London. A somewhat bleak read, but an intriguing one!
In 1863, Scotland Yard detective Campbell Lawless is assigned the thankless and seemingly impossible task of making an inventory of houses of ill repute and a census of London’s “working girls”. Facing mounting political pressure, Lawless wades into a network of underground dealings beyond prostitution, from erotic booksellers to thieves, and discovers a secret so dark that many will stop at nothing to prevent it coming to light…
LAWLESS AND THE FLOWERS OF SIN is the second book in the series about Campbell Lawless, written by William Sutton. Set in the mid-1800s, Lawless takes on some of the big moral and criminal questions of the age. Sutton does a nice job of research and weaves his obviously extensive reading on the period and the published literature of the time (way beyond what most people are familiar with) very nicely into the plot.
A quick note on the place of this novel in the series: this book is the second of the Lawless series (the first being LAWLESS AND THE DEVIL OF EUSTON SQUARE). I have not actually read any other Lawless novels, and so found some of the references, characters and relationships a bit confusing. Although it is possible (if you are willing to overlook the question of why some things are the way they stand) to read this novel on its own, I would highly recommend picking up LAWLESS AND THE DEVIL OF EUSTON SQUARE before you tackle this one!
And tackle this one you must, because there is a lot of plot packed into this novel! Almost every kind of crime is included, and linked together: murder, prostitution, theft, coercion, kidnapping, blackmail, drugs… it’s all part of this novel! This is probably the most powerful part of this story. So many of the crimes, not to mention the questions of morality and the attempt to determine what is a crime and what is not in the grey area of law, are things that still unfortunately happen today. In fact, the network that Lawless uncovers, while unthinkable, still exists in some form today. It is even more chilling to see these things described with the restraint of Victorian English, and this is one of the most engaging and compelling things about this novel. Also the variation in crimes and the way that they are linked together keeps the story fresh, unpredictable and exciting.
Sutton also does a good job of weaving together real people and fictional characters in this account, even including a few appearances by Charles Dickens! Some of these characters also have a real depth that draws you further into the story with a need to know more about them.
This may have been a function of the fact that I had not read the first of the Lawless novels, but I would have loved to have a bit more clarity about the plot – particularly at the beginning of the story. As I didn’t know much about Lawless, I was a bit confused for about the first 50 pages until his assignment really kicked off. It moved fairly quickly after that, but I think that plot could have been even stronger with some of the confusion cleared away.
All told, a somewhat bleak but fairly realistic-feeling Victorian story. I’m open to reading more Lawless novels, to find out more about some of these great characters!