When an Italian assassin's body is found floating in a barrel in Victorian London's East End, enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn are called in to investigate. Soon corpses begin to appear all over London, each accompanied by a Maf ia Black Hand note. As Barker and Llewelyn dig deeper, they become entangled in the vendettas of rival Italian syndicates and it is no longer clear who is a friend or foe.
About the Author
Will Thomas is the author of Some Danger Involved, the first novel featuring Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, and now a Barry and Shamus Award nominee. He lives with his family in Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
I was coming down the stairs on the morning of the twenty-second of August 1885, when there came a knock upon Cyrus Barker's front door. Now, I don't function well, as a rule, until coffee is singing freely in my veins, and that day was no exception. I'd applied a naked blade to my throat in two dozen strokes, and handled the task successfully, so my brain and nerves were ready for a rest; and yet there was that irritating knock. I could have answered it, of course, but getting the door was one of our butler's duties. In fact, Jacob Maccabee insisted upon it, as if opening a door was an art requiring years of rigorous discipline and study. I vacillated between the front door, Mac's private domain, and the back hallway. It was like being onstage when an actor misses his cue. I had taken two steps in the direction of the sound when the back door burst open and Mac came in at a trot, muttering under his breath in Yiddish. He brushed past me, giving me a look of minor annoyance probably for taking up space in his hallway and continued toward the front door. Freed from the responsibility and the taxing conundrum, I shambled off to the kitchen in search of sustenance.
"Bonjour, Etienne," I said to Barker's chef, though I managed to yawn through half of it.
Etienne Dummolard took the cigarette from his mouth long enough to spit upon the slate flagstones in greeting before replacing it again. In a bachelor household such as ours, words are measured slowly in the mornings. Sometimes it is quite eight o'clock before anyone risks a full sentence. I poured my coffee and sat at the table in front of the large window that faced my employer's garden.
Barker was outside, enjoying his potted Eden. He had his jacket off and was practicing one of the longer fighting forms he had learned in China while around him, Asian gardeners raked stones and pushed barrows containing new cuttings. As I watched, Mac came into view from the back door and I followed his progress over the bridge and along the crooked path to our employer. There was a yellow slip of paper in the butler's hand, a telegram. Thus endeth the mystery of the knock at the door, I thought, sucking down more coffee. I reached for the marmalade jar and a slice of toast from the rack.
A telegram is generally of interest, most people feeling that sixpence warranted information of some import, but Mac stopped at the edge of the gravel. The form was not to be interrupted. As a play, this was all mildly entertaining, but I'd almost run out of coffee. I got up and poured another cup, noting that Dummolard was making beef and mushroom pie, one of my favorites. When I returned to my seat, Barker had finished the form and was reading the telegram with one hand on his hip.
The Guv nodded and handed it to Mac, who turned back o the house. I opened the Dundee jar and began spreading marmalade onto my toast, noting that Barker was slipping on his jacket. The toast was halfway to my mouth when Mac slapped the telegram against the glass in front of me and I dropped it. According to some inevitable law of physics, the toast fell jam-side down onto my plate. Behind me, Etienne erupted in laughter. He has a rather infantile sense of humor, I've had occasion to notice.
The telegram read:
SOMETHING HERE POOLE SAYS YOU'LL WANT TO SEE STOP COME QUICKLY STOP WON'T KEEP IT HERE LONG STOP DUNHAM
Mac snatched it away and returned to his duties. Barker was just coming over the bridge. There was no time to attempt another slice of toast. I poured the rest of the scalding coffee down my throat and stood.
"No time for breakfast this morning, Etienne," I said, turning to leave.
"Imbécile," Dummolard responded. It's the same word in French and English. His free and caustic opinions would not have been tolerated in any other house in London, but, then, he did not receive any actual pay. He used our kitchen to experiment with new recipes for his Soho restaurant, Le Toison d'Or, claiming he came here out of a sense of gratitude for his former captain in the China Seas meaning Barker, of course. I thought it more likely he preferred to get away from his wife, Mireille, a six-foot-tall French Valkyrie with whom he had a most volatile relationship.
Once in the hall, I ran to the front door, jammed my straw boater onto my head, and retrieved my malacca stick from the stand. When Barker came through the back door, I was waiting as if I'd been there for some time.
"Good morning, Thomas," he said.
"Morning, sir," I replied. He lifted his own stick from the hall stand and we stepped out the front door into Brook Street. It was a warm morning; summer was keeping its grip on London, refusing to surrender. The houses across the street were painted in sunlight, and the birds in Newington were in full throat. It seemed a shame to bring up the subject of work.
"What do you suppose Dunham wants now?" I asked. A few months earlier we had worked on a case with Inspector Albert Dunham of the Thames Police involving missing children.
"You read the same words I did, lad," he said patiently, as a hansom eased up to the curb and we clambered aboard. We bowled off and were soon clattering down Newington Causeway on our way to London Bridge and Wapping, where the Thames Police station is situated.
Barker lit his pipe and ruminated. Any attempt on my part to instigate polite conversation would have been met with stern resistance and, at any rate, what would we have discussed? He attended no theater, was tone-deaf, and read few novels. I had not had time to look at the morning's newspapers; and it was too early to discuss ethics, religion, or politics. I had left without eating my toast merely to sit in a cab for forty-five minutes with nothing to do.
Eons later we arrived at the curious vertical building that housed the Thames Police and were directed around to the back to where the steam launches bobbed gently like tin boats in a bath. In the center of the dock, a large tarpaulin had been thrown over an object roughly the size of a chest of drawers. Whatever it was, the object was sodden, probably having been fished from the river. It had also been doused in carbolic, but the constables who manned the dock had managed to use both too much and not enough. It stung the nostrils but did not sufficiently cloak the reek that emanated from it.
"Hello, Barker," Dunham said, coming out of the station with Inspector Poole of the Yard. Dunham was short, barrel-chested, and bandy-legged; while Poole was tall and thin. Dunham had white hair like a wad of cotton, with brows and a mustache as black as shoe polish; whereas Poole was going bald with his long, sandy side-whiskers that swagged to his mustache like curtains. One worked for the Thames Police, the other Scotland Yard; and though the two organizations claimed to cooperate, they were as jealous of each other as a pair of opera sopranos. "Poole here said you might be interested."
"You're working with Scotland Yard on this?" Barker asked.
"I ain't decided yet," Dunham admitted, glancing at his tall companion. "It's river police business so far, but Inspector Poole has been gracious enough to contribute information. He recognized the body and suggested I telegraph you."
"Hello, Cyrus," Poole finally said. He had his hands in his pockets, as if to say he was present merely to give support and would let Dunham handle the actual investigation.
"Terry." My employer nodded.
Poole was one of Barker's friends and a seasoned member of the Criminal Investigation Department. He was also a former student, when the Guv taught a class in antagonistics in the C.I.D. building at Scotland Yard. Unlike my employer, who preferred his independence, Poole functioned well within the hierarchical confines of the Metropolitan Police. He'd need all his tact to deal with the prickly Thames Police inspector.
"Well, show us what you brought us here for," Barker said in his Lowland Scots accent.
"Very well," Dunham replied. "Mind the reek." He took a deep breath, like a diver, and crossed over to the tarpaulin, than whipped the canvas away.
Perhaps it was a trick of my mind, but it seemed as if a brown miasma rose from the horrid spectacle that the sunlight revealed to us without mercy. It was a hogshead whose top had been opened and the hoop dislodged, splaying the staves out on one side like jagged teeth. A very large man filled the barrel the way a cork does the neck of a wine bottle. He wore a checked suit of bilious green, making me think of a giant bullfrog. His face was mottled in death, a waxy yellow like cheese rind above, and rusty purple below. I was suddenly glad I'd only had coffee that morning. We all reached for our handkerchiefs and stuffed them under our noses.
Cyrus Barker moved forward and crouched, resting easily on the balls of his feet, eye to eye with the corpse. Absently, he stuffed his handkerchief in his pocket and examined the face.
"I know this man," he said. "This is Giorgio Serafini. He was an assassin, the best north of Naples. I would not have believed this without seeing it with my own eyes."
I recalled Serafini, whom Barker had questioned during our first case together. He'd worn a checked suit then as yellow as Coleman's mustard, and had a high-pitched voice with no trace of an Italian accent. He'd tried to intimidate Barker and ended up flat on his stomach in front of his employer. The meeting had taken place in a restaurant called the Neapolitan, owned by Victor Gigliotti, leader of an Italian criminal organization called the Camorra.
Barker stood again and circled the barrel. He completely removed the top hoop and jumped back as the rest of the staves fanned out. He is fastidious about his clothing. Serafini's rigid body sat upright in the center, like a stamen surrounded by petals. The effluvia began to work its way around the edges of my handkerchief. Barker coughed once into the back of his hand.
"Get that bloody carboy out here again!" Dunham barked.
One of the constables ran into the station and trotted back a minute later with a large glass container of disinfectant to pour over the head of the late Giorgio Serafini. Of the two the stench of decay or the burning carbolic I could not say which was worse.
Barker had stepped out of the way and was now staring down the river. His hand came up and he scratched under his chin, as he often did when he was thinking.
"Are there many Italians working on the river?" he asked. "Dockworkers, stevedores, and so forth?"
"You're asking me?" Dunham replied, breaking into a grin. "I thought you knew everything. Yes, as a matter of fact, there are. Hundreds of 'em. Mostly casual laborers."
"Are many of them Sicilian?"
"Sicilian?" Dunham asked, as if it were a new word to his vocabulary. "Dunno 'bout that. One I-talian's pretty much like another, I reckon."
"Oh, no," I put in. "They're all different. Italy's only been unified in recent times, and even now, the country is in discord. Most of the south is full of secret criminal societies. What are their names, sir?"
"The 'ndrangheta," Barker supplied. "The Mafia "
"I've heard of the Mafia," Poole said, looking up. "They're the Sicilians, right? An inspector from Palermo is at the Yard this week. He spoke of the troubles they have down there."
"This kind of trouble," Barker said, tapping the barrel with the head of his stick.
"You think the Sicilians are behind this?" Dunham asked.
Barker shrugged. "They export olive oil in Sicily, and they use a lot of barrels. This sort of thing is common there."
"Well, it ain't here," Dunham stated. "The only thing we store in barrels is good English ale, which is as it should be."
"Any sign of how he died, Cyrus?" Poole asked.
Barker nodded. "Shotgun wounds, close up. One here in the right breast, you see, and the other in the back. It scorched the clothing, and the pellet pattern is very tight. I'd say the shooter got him in the back at point-blank range and, when he was down, administered the coup de grâce."
"I wonder how long he's been in the river," Poole said.
"A week or more, I'd say," Dunham answered, being the expert on anything pertaining to the water. "They shot your boy here and bunged him in the barrel, then tossed it off a dock somewheres. The air in his lungs couldn't counteract the weight of the barrel and the flesh and bone. It sank to the bottom, probably not more than ten or fifteen feet, and stayed there for several days, putrefying. Then the body filled with enough gases to lift the barrel off the bottom again. I reckon a fellow as big as this one coulda done that. The barrel eventually came to the surface and was spotted by pedestrians on London Bridge. Some fishermen tried to pull it in, but it was too heavy without a winch. We was called in, and don't even ask me what it was like when we pried off the lid. Made me wonder how much pension I'd have if I resigned this morning."
"Have you sent word to the Poplar Morgue?" my employer asked.
"We have," Dunham said. "They are taking their time getting here with their barrow. So you think this is some sort of feud among the I-talians?"
"It would appear so. They have elevated opinions of honor and are often involved in acts of retribution such as this."
"So this fat fellow was an assassin," Poole said. "I've heard his name before but never actually laid eyes upon him. To tell the truth, for a professional killer, he doesn't look like much."
"Don't let his girth fool you; he could move very quickly and shoot with unerring accuracy. On a dare, he once shot down the barrel of another rifle at fifty yards, bursting the shell in the chamber, or so I've heard." Barker began pushing on one of the lower staves with his stick. It was not going to be an easy thing to get this huge, bloated body onto the barrow when it arrived.
"Sir," I said, as a thought occurred to me. "What about Serafini's wife? The two were inseparable."
"Very good, lad," Barker said. "You remembered."
"It's difficult to forget the first woman who throws a dagger at you."
"Well," Barker said, peering into the barrel with a sigh. "They are inseparable still. She's here at the bottom. I'm afraid the morgue may need to send another barrow." Copyright © 2008 by Will Thomas
Reading Group Guide
1. The following quotation from Machiavelli is used as the book's epigraph: "I'm not interested in the status quo; I want to overthrow it." What is the significance of this statement? Why do you think the author chose a Machiavelli quote, and this one in particular?
2. The prologue to The Black Hand is set at the seaside estate of Barker's lady love, though "the Widow" herself is not actually introduced until midway through the story. What effect did this opening setting have on your reading experience, especially if you have read previous novels in the Barker & Llewelyn series? Do you think that introducing the novel at Philippa's home emphasizes an element of romance? If the story had begun with a scene involving the battle at the docks, how would that change the tone of this novel?
3. Barker relates the history of the Mafia to Llewelyn as they become more involved in their investigation. Were you surprised to discover that the Mafia was actually conceived in London by a member of the Freemason society (p. 55) as a movement to overthrow the French occupation in Sicily? Did you find that the historical references throughout the novel enriched your reading experience? Are there any particular historical elements in the book that you might further explore and research?
4. Inspector Pettigrilli remarks to Barker, "You make it very easy for criminals in this country. They come and go quite freely, if I may say it. England is very indulgent" (p. 66). Consider what you may know about modern immigration laws in England. How different do you think the situation is today from the way it is portrayed in the Victorian London of The Black Hand? How do Barker and Llewelyn regard the various immigrant communities featured in this story? Do these immigrants consider themselves true Londoners? Do you think that crime is a result of illegal immigration, or are the two primarily unrelated? Discuss your feelings with the group.
5. Barker explains to Llewelyn, "There is nothing more dangerous than a mercenary, trained in the art of war, who is cunning enough to use the political situation to his own economic advantage" (p. 118). As Llewelyn points out, Barker, too, can be defined as a mercenary of sorts. How does Barker regard his occupation?
6. Were you surprised by Llewelyn's decision to continue working with Barker after he was given the option to find new employment? Or did you expect it? Do you think his decision was affected by the fact that so much of Barker's personal life was revealed to him while the two worked on this case? How did your feelings about Barker evolve after you learned about his life as a pirate, his relationship with Philippa, and his atypical praise for Llewelyn?
7. As Barker and Llewelyn wrap up the details of the case, Barker reveals that at some point throughout the investigation he suspected almost everyone involved (p. 272). As the reader, who did you believe was guilty? Did you guess that Hooligan would defect and help the Sicilians during the dock battle? Did you think that Marco Faldo was actually masquerading as another character? What methods did Will Thomas employ to maintain the mystery in The Black Hand?
8. How does The Black Hand compare to other mob and Mafia stories that you're familiar with? If this book were to become a movie, whom would you cast as its characters?
Enhance Your Book Club
Research the secret societies or organizations mentioned in the book, such as the Camorra, the Mafia, and the Freemasons. Find a surprising fact, such as an unexpected member of such societies or an episode in which such societies were involved. Share your research with the group.
Play a game using the L'occhio skills (p. 75) that Llewelyn learned from Mr. Gallenga. Have one member of the group create a setting with various target objects. Pass out flyers with the target objects listed, and allow the group members to have thirty seconds to survey the room and record where the objects are located. The person who successfully spies the most objects from the list should win a prize.
Host your book club meeting at an Italian restaurant or, if possible, one serving Sicilian-style dishes.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've enjoyed all of the books in this series, some of them more than this one, but in this one we learn more about Barker than we ever thought we would. There's plenty of action of the two-fisted kind and lots of sarcasm of the young Welshman kind, and enough violence to hold the attention of most mystery-suspense readers. For those unfamiliar with the series, it is an historical detective serial with one of the central characters, Inquiry Agent Cyrus Barker, being a larger than life type former-missionary-turned-ship-captain-turned-expert-in-all-things-Oriental-including/especially-martial-arts with comic relief coming in the form of the other central character, Thomas Llewelyn, a bright and much despairing young man from Wales who has suffered disgrace, been widowed, and then been accepted as assistant to the formidable Mr. Barker. The characters in these books are varied and individual, their interactions going a long way towards fleshing out the story lines.
As any reasonably serious reader knows, one of the disadvantages of having an author whose next release you're always anxiously awaiting is that once the new book comes out, you tend to devour it quickly. You savor the experience, but then, almost before you know it, are left asking, once again, "How long until the next one?"That's the experience I'm having this morning after reading "The Black Hand" during evenings and travel times on an out-of-town trip. Can this really be the fifth Barker and Llewelyn mystery already? The characters continue to intrigue, Llewelyn particularly continues to mature as a person and as a character, and Will Thomas continues to impress not only with his research, but with his ability to take us deep into the economic and ethnic subcultures of 1880s London. Each of the Barker and Llewelyn novels have been an intriguing balance of the somewhat-familiar (late nineteenth century London, at a time when Sherlock Holmes is in the early stages of his own career) and the very unfamiliar (the worlds of the Irish, Chinese, Jewish, or in this case Italian urban underclass). Thomas' ability to maintain this balance is one of the remarkable features of the series.For all its merit as a story of murder and mayhem (have the other books been quite as bloody as this one? I can't entirely recall), "The Black Hand" is a particularly noteworthy milestone in the relationship of our principal characters themselves. For one thing, we learn more about Barker the man and his mysterious background than in any volume since he was introduced. Llewelyn, for his part, is visibly maturing -- a fact Barker acknowledges in a way fans may find touching. As Barker becomes less of a man of mystery (if only slightly) and Llewelyn grows in confidence and ability, it suggests an interesting new dynamic for -- one hopes and assumes there will be -- later volumes.Most of my review has been in the context of "The Black Hand" as part of a series, and that's certainly how it works best. But it also works well as a standalone murder mystery and I think fans of the genre will enjoy both the twists of the tale and the distinctive narrative viewpoint. As well, of course, as the author's ability to synthesize a huge amount of information into a convincing but not overwhelming level of period detail. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.
The 5th installment in Will Thomas' Barker/Llewellyn series, The Black Hand tells how our heroes deal with an incursion into London by the Mafia. The series has been a favorite, and I thought this one was easily as good as the rest, both for the plot itself and for the new information revealed about Barker. The plotting was tight, the prose was outstanding, and the characters as real as ever. On top of everything else, I got to read it front-to-back on an airplane ride - a great way to pass the time!Highly recommended, but those new to the series should start with the first one to get the full experience.
With each mystery in this series, author Will Thomas explores another area of Victorian London. In The Black Hand, after the body of a well-known Italian assassin is found floating in a barrel in the Thames, we're taken to Clerkenwell. It seems that Sicily has grown too small and the Mafia is seeking to increase its territory by moving into London. The bodies begin to pile up, rival gangs are pitted against each other, and private enquiry agents Barker and Llewelyn have their hands full.As always in this series, it is the characters and the setting that shine supreme. Barker is a mysterious Victorian version of James Bond, and his young assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, is the perfect callow foil to all his seriousness. Llewelyn talks us through the streets of Victorian London, tries to figure out his enigmatic boss, and never misses an opportunity to appreciate a pretty female. That Llewelyn genuinely wants to learn and be the best assistant to Barker that he can only adds to the story.A bonus in The Black Hand is that we get to go on a short journey away from London and learn about the woman in Barker's life. There's so much testosterone and action in these books that the feminine touch felt like a lovely sea breeze through the pages. It also added another character about whom I want to know more!As long as Will Thomas writes about his private enquiry agents, I will read their adventures. Thomas brings nineteenth-century London to life, his characters are interesting and fun, and the action keeps the pages turning quickly. If you're in the mood for some Victorian mystery and adventure, Will Thomas is an excellent author to try.
Another great installment in the Barker/Llwelyn series. Atleast as good as its predecessors. Nineteenth century London is as good as it gets for detective fiction.
Thomas' new novel, "The Black Hand¿ is number 5 in the Cyrus Barker/Thomas Llewelyn series. In this installment, the two enquiry agents are hired by the government to try to thwart the establishment of a group of Sicilians known collectively as the Mafia from infiltrating the British underworld. There are also fears that these troublemakers will begin a reign of extortion, murder and other nefarious deeds. Several people have been found dead and the manner of their deaths is known to be those used by the Sicilians. Somehow these people have to be stopped, and soon, especially since the criminals hit very close to home for our heroes. The author also gives his readers a very brief history of the Mafia (up to that time, of course), which was very interesting. I've really enjoyed all of the Barker/Llewelyn series, and while I enjoyed this one, it wasn't my favorite of the five. I figured out the plot twist pretty early on, which kind of disappointed me, and it just seemed a bit flat storywise, not as exciting as some of the previous novels in the series. . Overall it was still a pretty good read; the reader learns more about the enigmatic character of Cyrus Barker, which is a plus. I'd recommend it, but I strongly urge readers who may be considering the series to start with the first one, Some Danger Involved, and to read through the books in order. Now, I wonder how long I'll have to wait for the next one?
One can start The "B & L" series at any novel but will automatically want to read them from the initial "Some Danger Involved."
Very enjoyable. Lots more stories could be told, why stop at five?
My husband and I have a large library of fiction books with our favorite authors but we often look for a new author to add. We found Will Thomas with his first book "Some Danger Involved" and have since collected the series. The series is set in Victorian London and is quite similar to the Sherlock Holmes genre. The main character is an "inquiry agent" Cyrus Barker who is quite like Holmes. Not in looks but in thought and action. He hires the novice apprentice Llewelyn, who is the one who writes the stories. While we could be disappointed that Barker is a take-off on Sherlock Holmes, I find we like Llewelyn and enjoy following his exploits and his growth through the series. Each novel also explores a different ethnic group, about which we learn a lot. From the first novel, about the Jewish culture, through the last novel (the Italian culture) and including the Chinese culture in between. The essence of the mystery they are out to solve is often buried in the traditions of the ethnic culture which is the subject of the book. (I just found all of that SO interesting!) And Barker, being a man of the world, knows much of this. Thomas's writing style is compelling with its action and steady forward movement and better for the first-person relationship with the character of the likeable apprentice Llewelyn. I would say this is a series where you're better off starting with the first book and following this character's growth all the way through. It's worth it.
Will Thomas returns to form with the fifth installment in his Barker and Llewelyn series. The enquiry agent and assistant come up against a task of international proportions in The Black Hand, and their mettle is tested time and again in a rollicking adventure from start to finish. Familiar faces come out of London's foggy past to greet the pair and offer both obstacle and assistance, but there are a number of colorful additions to Thomas' masterfully wrought Victorian landscape. The Black Hand follows the somewhat disappointing Hellfire Conspiracy, and the author brings readers back to the marvelous heights reached with The Limehouse Text. Barker's tantalizing past finally becomes a bit clearer, the action and characters are top-notch, and Llewelyn continues to endear himself to an ever-growing fan base. Like any great spectacle, it will leave you with the sense that you underpaid for the privilege.
This is a great read. I do recommend a person begin at the beginning of the series and continue to this book. The series begins with "Some Danger Involved". Can't wait for the next book.
Old Red and Big Red have become two of my favorite people. This book takes a lot of the old standards of westerns, mysteries, Victorian age events, railroads, Chinatown, you name it, and makes it all fresh and new - an adventure anyone would love to be on. I can't wait to see where this journey is going to take us!
This book was good on it's own. I would recommend that the reader explore the previous books by this author. The whole series is worth reading, if one enjoys mysteries.