Bernard Cornwell – Gallows Thief

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Gallows Thief is historic crime novel set in Regency London. The main character is the jauntily named Rider Sandman, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, possessed of a short temper and a letter giving him investigatory powers on behalf of the Home Secretary. Sandman is looking into the guilt or innocence of a convict, a young painter, imprisoned for the murder of the Countess of Avebury. Normally having been convicted by the court is enough to prove guilt, but a petition querying the validity of his conviction has come to the notice of the Queen and so the Home Secretary has to appoint an investigator.

Sandman feels like a supporting character from a Sharpe novel who has stepped out of the pages of that series and found himself star of his own book. Indeed there is a subtle reference late on in Gallows Thief to a green clad rifleman and his small company who helped the then Captain Sandman of the 52nd Regiment out of some sticky situation during the Napoleonic conflict.

As we have come to expect, Cornwell’s attention to detail in his depiction of England’s capital and different strata of society in the 1800s is impeccable. What is also evident is some solid argumentation for and against capital punishment reflecting the diverse sentiments of the time when the English and Welsh gallows were at their busiest. The novel also contains a cast of colourful characters painted with varying levels of detail depending on their importance to the plot.

Like Richard Sharpe, Sandman’s powers of deduction are not infallible and indeed he gets it wrong as often as he gets it right. A skilled cricketer he may be, but he’s no Sherlock Holmes. He’s very much a man down on his luck just trying to earn a crust to have any chance of re-establishing his engagement to Eleanor Forrest with whom he is besotted. Eleanor’s mother, the Lady Forrest, doesn’t want her daughter hanging around a man who can’t afford to get his boots fixed and a black mark against his family name, whereas her father is rather more forgiving and indeed gets on well with Sandman.

Sandman’s family fell into disrepute when his father died leaving behind a great deal of debt. However Sandman’s heroic actions at Waterloo and his sporting ability are attributes he is able to cash in on among those ex-army men he meets and Lordly friends who might not have fought in the war but certainly like a game with bat and ball. He also gets some free help from the streetwise Sally Hood who lodges with her brother (a notorious highwayman – no guesses what his name might be) in the same dodgy (‘flash’) London boozer as Sandman.

Gallows Thief is a good read and it puzzles me as to why Cornwell has never revisited the characters in subsequent novels. Apart from the absence of a sequel, my only other gripe is about a re-run of the preparations to a hanging near the exciting finale of the book. The ten pages pp360-370 seem almost like a ‘cut and paste’ of a section of the prologue with the characters swapped out. It’s very noticeable if you have read the book quickly like I did. I don’t know why Cornwell’s editor didn’t advise him to rewrite it more to differentiate it from the very memorable prologue.

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