Thursday, 7 May 2009

Murder. Adultery. Facism. Rotting hearts sent by post. Just your average day in the mind of author Andrew Taylor

Review - Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor

There is something so beautifully sinister about Taylor's work that makes me hope I never have the pleasure of meeting him in person. Sure, he comes across as a perfectly sound bloke on his website (other than the dodgy one-eyed photograph), and he's married with children and a couple of cats and all that. But having read first The American Boy (the one featuring a young Edgar Allan Poe) and now this, I wouldn't recommend being stranded alone with the man.

Bleeding Heart Square is set in mid-1930s London and, as with The American Boy, Taylor has spun another complex web of intrigue and deception: A woman flees her abusive husband, seeking refuge with her father in a gloomy lodging house in the eerie-sounding square. The owner, a middle-aged spinster called Miss Penhow, hasn't been seen for four years, and a plain-clothes policeman lurks in the shadows, watching everything that happens in the square. And someone is sending parcels of rotting hearts to the house, addressed to Miss Penhow's estranged husband, the wonderfully menacing Serridge.

At the core of the story are two threads. Lydia lives in upper class splendour on a vast country estate. On the surface, she has everything. Beneath the surface, she's a prisoner to her manipulative bully of a husband, Marcus, a rising young politician within the British Union of Fascists. The book opens with her taking one beating too many, prompting her to flee to London and her father.

The second thread revolves around Rory Wentwood, a struggling journalist just returned from India, who is engaged to Fenella, the niece of the missing Miss Penhow. Snooping around Bleeding Heart Square under orders from his fiancee, Rory is coerced into taking a room at the lodging house by Detective Sergeant Narton, an enigmatic cop who is investigating Serridge and the disappearance of Miss Penhow.

When Lydia and Rory meet, they become embroiled in each other's stories as Rory tries desperately to hang on to Fenella, Lydia learns the disturbing truth about Marcus and both of them fall deeper into the murky world that Serridge inhabits and the evil that pervades Bleeding Heart Square.

Taylor isn't just one of the best crime writers around. He's one of the best writers, period. Bleeding Heart Square is a slow-burn. It has a measured pace to it - not for Taylor the short, sharp edge-of-your-pants cliffhanger chapters that James Patterson churns out. Taylor lands the hook in your mouth without you realising it and before you know it you're turning those pages, drawn into the gothic atmosphere that all but rises from the page to devour your senses.

Part of the story's intrigue is down to Taylor opening each chapter with a present tense, first person passage (the rest of the book is third person), in which the reader takes on the increasingly sinister persona of one of the characters who is following Miss Penhow's missing journal. It's a clever ploy, but one which could have backfired in the hands of a lesser writer.

The time and place that Taylor evokes is frighteningly vivid, a period of social and political uncertainty, with the fascist subplot adding to the suspense that gradually builds throughout the book. All this work would, of course, be wasted if Taylor had dropped the ball with his characters, but he can't be faulted here either.

Lydia's slow transformation from aristocratic wallflower who is waited on hand and foot to independent, streetwise woman is a masterclass in character development, and each of the supporting cast are given ample room to breathe and come to life. It's Serridge, however, whose memory lingers longest, a wonderful creation of charm, mystery and utter villainy, although the wretched Marcus isn't too far behind.

The beauty of coming late to an established author like Taylor is that you have a backlist of books to catch up on. It's been four years between reading The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square. Rest assured I won't wait as long next time.