An Unpardonable Crime: A Novelby Andrew Taylor
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England 1819. Two enigmatic Americans arrive in London and soon after a bank collapses. A man is found dead on a building site; another goes missing in the teeming stews of the city's notorious Seven Dials district. A deathbed vigil ends in an act of theft, and a beautiful heiress flirts with her inferiors. A strange destiny connects each of these events to an American boy, Edgar Allan Poe, who was brought to England by his foster father and sent to the leafy village of Stoke Newington to be educated.
An Unpardonable Crime is a twenty-first-century novel with a nineteenth-century voice. It is both a multilayered literary murder mystery and a love story, its setting ranging from the coal-scented fogs of late-Regency London to the stark winter landscapes of Gloucestershire. And at its center is the boy who does not really belong anywhere, an actor who never learns the significance of his part.
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- 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.50(d)
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- 13 - 18 Years
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AN UNPARDONABLE CRIME
By Andrew Taylor
HYPERIONCopyright © 2004 Andrew Taylor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe owe respect to the living, Voltaire tells us in his Première Lettre sur Oedipe, but to the dead we owe only truth. The truth is that there are days when the world changes, and a man does not notice because his mind is on his own affairs.
I first saw Sophia Frant shortly before midday on Wednesday the 8th of September, 1819. She was leaving the house in Stoke Newington, and for a moment she was framed in the doorway as though in a picture. Something in the shadows of the hall behind her had made her pause, a word spoken, perhaps, or an unexpected movement.
What struck me first were the eyes, which were large and blue. Then other details lodged in my memory like burrs on a coat. She was neither tall nor short, with well-shaped, regular features and a pale complexion. She wore an elaborate cottage bonnet, decorated with flowers. Her dress had a white skirt, puffed sleeves and a pale blue bodice, the latter matching the leather slipper peeping beneath the hem of her skirt. In her left hand she carried a pair of white gloves and a small reticule.
I heard the clatter of the footman leaping down from the box of the carriage, and the rattle as he let down the steps. A stout middle-aged man in black joined the lady on the doorstep and gave her his arm as they strolled towards the carriage. They did not look at me. On either side of the path from the house to the road were miniature shrubberies enclosed by railings. I felt faint, and I held on to one of the uprights of the railings at the front.
"Indeed, madam," the man said, as though continuing a conversation begun in the house, "our situation is quite rural and the air is notably healthy."
The lady glanced at me and smiled. This so surprised me that I failed to bow. The footman opened the door of the carriage. The stout man handed her in.
"Thank you, sir," she murmured. "You have been very patient."
He bowed over her hand. "Not at all, madam. Pray give my compliments to Mr. Frant."
I stood there like a booby. The footman closed the door, put up the steps and climbed up to his seat. The lacquered woodwork of the carriage was painted blue and the gilt wheels were so clean they hurt your eves.
The coachman unwound the reins from the whipstock. He cracked his whip, and the pair of matching bays, as glossy as the coachman's top hat, jingled down the road towards the High-street. The stout man held up his hand in not so much a wave as a blessing. When he turned back to the house, his gaze flicked towards me.
I let go of the railing and whipped off my hat. "Mr. Bransby? That is, have I the honour-?"
"Yes, you have." He stared at me with pale blue eyes partly masked by pink, puff lids. "What do you want with me?"
"My name is Shield, sir. Thomas Shield. My aunt, Mrs. Reynolds, wrote to you, and you were kind enough to say-"
"Yes, yes." The Reverend Mr. Bransby held out a finger for me to shake. He stared me over, running his eyes from head to toe. "You're not at all like her."
He led me up the path and through the open door into the panelled hall beyond. From somewhere in the building came the sound of chanting voices. He opened a door on the right and went into a room fitted out as a library; with a Turkey carpet and two windows overlooking the road. He sat down heavily in the chair behind the desk, stretched out his legs and pushed two stubby fingers into his right-hand waistcoat pocket.
"You look fagged."
"I walked from London, sir. It was warm work."
"Sit down." He took out an ivory snuff-box, helped himself to a pinch and sneezed into a handkerchief spotted with brown stains. "So you want a position, hey?"
"And Mrs. Reynolds tells me that there are at least two good reasons why you are entirely unsuitable for any post I might be able to offer you."
"If you would permit me, I would endeavour to explain."
"Some would say that facts explain themselves. You left your last position without a reference. And, more recently, if I understand your aunt aright, you have been the next best thing to a Bedlamite."
"I cannot deny either charge, sir. But there were reasons for my behaviour, and there are reasons why those episodes happened and why they will not happen again."
"You have two minutes in which to convince me."
"Sir, my father was an apothecary in the town of Rosington. His practice prospered, and one of his patrons was a canon of the cathedral, who presented me to a vacancy at the grammar school. When I left there, I matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge."
"You held a scholarship there?"
"No, sir. My father assisted me. He knew I had no aptitude for the apothecary's trade and he intended me eventually to take holy orders. Unfortunately, near the end of my first year, he died of a putrid fever, and his affairs were found to be much embarrassed, so I left the university without taking my degree."
"What of your mother?"
"She had died when I was a lad. But the master of the grammar school, who had known me as a boy, gave me a job as an assistant usher, teaching the younger boys. All went well for a few years, but, alas, he died and his successor did not look so kindly on me." I hesitated, for the master had a daughter named Fanny, the memory of whom still brought me pain. "We disagreed, sir-that was the long and the short of it. I said foolish things I instantly regretted."
"As is usually the case," Bransby said.
"It was then April 1815, and I fell in with a recruiting sergeant."
He took another pinch of snuff. "Doubtless he made you so drunk that you practically snatched the King's shilling from his hand and went off to fight the monster Bonaparte single-handed. Well, sir, you have given me ample proof that you are a foolish, headstrong young man who has a belligerent nature and cannot hold his liquor. And now shall we come to Bedlam?"
I squeezed the thick brim of my hat until it bent under the pressure. "Sir, I was never there in my life."
He scowled. "Mrs. Reynolds writes that you were placed under restraint, and lived for a while in the care of a doctor. Whether in Bedlam itself or not is immaterial. How came you to be in such a state?"
"Many men had the misfortune to be wounded in the late war. It so happened that I was wounded in my mind as well as in my body."
"Wounded in the mind? You sound like a school miss with the vapours. Why not speak plainly? Your wits were disordered."
"I was ill, sir. Like one with a fever. I acted imprudently."
"Imprudent? Good God, is that what you call it? I understand you threw your Waterloo Medal at an officer of the Guards in Rotten-row."
"I regret it excessively, sir."
He sneezed, and his little eyes watered. "It is true that your aunt, Mrs. Reynolds, was the best housekeeper my parents ever had. As a boy I never had any reason to doubt her veracity or indeed her kindness. But those two facts do not necessarily encourage me to allow a lunatic and a drunkard a position of authority over the boys entrusted to my care."
"Sir, I am neither of those things."
He glared at me. "A man, moreover, whose former employers will not speak for him."
"But my aunt speaks for me. If you know her, sir, you will know she would not do that lightly."
For a moment neither of us spoke. Through the open window came the clop of hooves from the road beyond. A fly swam noisily through the heavy air. I was slowly baking, basted in sweat in the oven of my own clothes. My black coat was too heavy for a day like this but it was the only one I had. I wore it buttoned to the throat to conceal the fact that I did not have a shirt beneath.
I stood up. "I must detain you no longer, sir."
"Be so good as to sit down. I have not concluded this conversation." Bransby picked up his eye glasses and twirled them between finger and thumb. "I am persuaded to give you a trial." He spoke harshly, as if he had in mind a trial in a court of law "I will provide you with your board and lodging for a quarter. I will also advance you a small sum of money so you may dress in a manner appropriate to a junior usher at this establishment. If your conduct is in any way unsatisfactory, you will leave at once. If all goes well, however, at the end of the three months, I may decide to renew the arrangement between us, perhaps on different terms. Do I make myself clear?"
"Ring the bell there. You will need refreshment before you return to London."
I stood up again and tugged the rope on the left of the fireplace.
"Tell me," he added, without any change of tone, "is Mrs. Reynolds dying?"
I felt tears prick my eyelids. I said, "She does not confide in me, but she grows weaker daily."
"I am sorry to hear it. She has a small annuity, I collect? You must not mind me if I am blunt. It is as well for us to be frank about such matters."
There is a thin line between frankness and brutality. I never knew on which side of the line Bransby stood. I heard a tap on the door.
"Enter!" cried Mr. Bransby.
I turned, expecting a servant in answer to the bell. Instead a small, neat boy slipped into the room.
"Ah, Allan. Good morning."
"Good morning, sir."
He and Bransby shook hands.
"Make your bow to Mr. Shield, Allan," Bransby told him. "You will be seeing more of him in the weeks to come."
Allan glanced at me and obeyed. He was a well-made child with large, bright eyes and a high forehead. In his hand was a letter.
"Are Mr. and Mrs. Allan quite well?" Bransby inquired.
"Yes, sir. My father asked me to present his compliments, and to give you this."
Bransby took the letter, glanced at the superscription and dropped it on the desk. "I trust you will apply yourself with extra force after this long holiday. Idleness does not become you."
"Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes." He prodded the boy in the chest. "Continue and construe."
"I regret, sir, I cannot."
Bransby boxed the lad's ears with casual efficiency. He turned to me. "Eh, Mr. Shield? I need not ask you to construe, but perhaps you would be so good as to complete the sentence?"
"Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros. Add that to have studied the liberal arts with assiduity refines one's manners and does not allow them to be coarse."
"You see, Allan? Mr. Shield was wont to mind his book. Epistulae Ex Ponto, book the second. He knows his Ovid and so shall you."
When we were alone, Bransby wiped fragments of snuff from his nostrils with a large, stained handkerchief. "One must always show them who is master, Shield," he said. "Remember that. Kindness is all very well but it don't answer in the long run. Take young Edgar Allan, for example. The boy has parts, there is no denying it. But his parents indulge him. I shudder to think where such as he would be without due chastisement. Spare the rod, sir, and spoil the child."
So it was that, in the space of a few minutes, I found a respectable position, gained a new roof over my head, and encountered for the first time both Mrs. Frant and the boy Allan. Though I marked a slight but unfamiliar twang in his accent, I did not then realise that Allan was American.
Nor did I realise that Mrs. Frant and Edgar Allan would lead me, step by step, towards the dark heart of a labyrinth, to a place of terrible secrets and the worst of crimes.
Chapter TwoBefore I venture into the labyrinth, let me deal briefly with this matter of my lunacy.
I had not seen my aunt Reynolds since I was a boy at school, yet I asked them to send for her when they put me in gaol because I had no other person in the world who would acknowledge the ties of kinship.
She spoke up for me before the magistrates. One of them had been a soldier, and was inclined to mercy. Since I had indeed thrown the medal before a score of witnesses, and moreover shouted "You murdering bastard" as I did so, there was little doubt in any mind including my own that I was guilty: The Guards officer was a vengeful man, for although the medal had hardly hurt him, his horse had reared and thrown him before the ladies.
So it seemed there was only one road to mercy, and that was by declaring me insane. At the time I had little objection. The magistrates decided that I was the victim of periodic bouts of insanity, during one of which I had assaulted the officer on his black horse. It was a form of lunacy, they agreed, that should yield to treatment. This made it possible for me to be released into the care of my aunt.
She arranged for me to board with Dr. Haines, whom she had consulted during my trial. Haines was a humane man who disliked chaining up his patients like dogs and who lived with his own family not far away from them. "I hold with Terence," the doctor said to me. "Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto. To be sure, some of the poor fellows have unusual habits which are not always convenient in society, but they are made of the same clay as you or I."
Excerpted from AN UNPARDONABLE CRIME by Andrew Taylor Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Andrew Taylor is the author of many crime and suspense novels. The recipient of the Crime Writers' Association 2009 Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing, Taylor has also won the CWA's John Creasey Award, an Edgar Scroll from the Mystery Writers of America, an Audie, and two CWA's Ellis Peters Historical Daggers (a unique achievement), as well as a shortlisting for the CWA's Gold Dagger. His website is www.andrew-taylor.co.uk.
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I am a fan of historical novels but not crazy about a Dickensian tome. I find the pace to be slow and the dialog verbose. Yet, despite both those elements being found here, albeit to a lesser degree than in other novels I have read, this was an excellent work. The pace and the language set the mood rather than detracted from it. The characters were classic melodrama, either very good, very bad or very helpless. Even the lesser characters were interesting and with purpose. The story was at times so dense to be almost unfathomable and yet compelling enough to keep me turning the pages in frenzy. This was a well written, wonderfully cast, and enjoyable romp through the early 19th century. The ending was a little bit unusual, but the entire trip was one well worth the time. As a recommendation, given the setting in London in the 1820's, this is not a beach read. It is the perfect book to curl up with on a stormy, cold winter evening.
This novel will appeal to lovers of Dickens as well as Sherlock Holmes. Extremely well written with great characters and a good ending. I hope the author continues to write historical fiction - preferable in Victorian England.
Noted Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi certainly needs no introduction to audiences. He is one of the most acclaimed actors of our time and deservedly so. Born in Britain and knighted by the Queen, he received a Tony Award for his performance in Much Ado About Nothing; his most recent film appearance was with Russell Crowe in The Gladiator. It is rare when an actor and a story seem so perfectly matched that it is nigh on to impossible to imagine anyone else presenting the reading. Such is the case with Sir Derek Jacobi and 'An Unpardonable Crime,' a mystery set in 19th century London. Early in the century a bank collapses, and a man is found dead at the site. One more man seems to have disappeared in the dangerous Seven Dials area of the city. At this same time Edgar Allan Poe was ten-years-old, and a student in a small village, Stoke Newington. It would seem that all would be sanguine and safe in this protected enclave, but that is not the case. London's grisly doings have a far reaching effect, stretching to a schoolmaster, Thomas Shield, who is at first confused then understandably frightened by this puzzling chain of events. Listening to this story as read by Sir Derek Jacobi is pure pleasure.
A wonderful tale with absorbing characters. A strong story which is aided by the introduction of a young Edgar Allan Poe. Will definitely keep your interest.
I got an Advance Reader's Copy last year at the B&N store where I work, and I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this one. Literary/historical/mysteries aren't really my bag, and I was surprised to find myself reluctant to put it down each night at the end of my bedtime reading ritual. I don't know any of Taylor's other works so I'm flying solo on this one, but I definitely recommend it.