Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "a luscious Victorian thriller" that "sends two characters from Wilkie Collins's 1860s novel [The Woman in White] on a brilliant literary mission," James Wilson's The Dark Clue is as stylishly inventive as the oil paintings of J. M. W. Turner, the elusive genius who lies at the thriller's heart. Sheltered, upright Walter Hartright is commissioned to write a biography of England's great Romantic landscape artist. When he discovers the "dark clue" hidden deep within Turner's paintings, he becomes eerily obsessed with reconstructing a life that is shrouded in mystery and steeped in rumor. To do so, he seeks help from a Dickensian assemblage of the lowest and highest elements of society, from John Ruskin to the tawdry women of the dockside brothels. Soon enough, he uncovers evidence of unspeakable depravity, but can it be believed? Acclaimed historian James Wilson's debut novel offers a "compelling vision of the mean streets of London," a "marvelous period-piece mystery" whose "vivid evocation of Turner's paintings the brooding colors and dark clues will haunt the reader" (Helen Parramore, Tampa Tribune). "[Wilson's] descriptions ... are as luminous, majestic, and mysterious as Turner's finest paintings; you may read them in awe." The Washington Post Book World "Irresistibly flavorful ... Wilson keeps a firm grip on our attention." Bruce Allen, The Boston Globe "Evocative and sophisticated ... Wilson's exacting, detailed descriptions of Victorian England ... make for vivid storytelling." Publishers Weekly
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21st January, 186--
This is a book begun, but not finished.
I could not finish it.
Many times I have come close to destroying it, thinking I should have no rest while it remained to reproach me.
I could not bring myself to do it.
I have therefore given instructions that it should be sealed in a box, which is to remain unopened until I, my wife, Laura, our sister, Marian Halcombe, and all our children are dead.
As I write these words, the man whose story I set out to tell has already answered for his life in the highest court of all. Before you read them, I shall have followed him there, and made answer for my own.
Remember, as you judge us, that you shall stand there too.
Letter from Walter Hartright to Laura Hartright, 18th July, 185--
Brompton Grove, Tuesday
My dearest love,
I hope you're sitting down as you read this, for I have strange news. (But don't be alarmed -- good news, I think!) I've no time to confide it both to you and to my journal, so please keep this letter -- as you'll see, I may have need of it later.
First, though, a coincidence. you are, in a way, responsible for it, for it arose from my mood yesterday, when you left. I was so melancholy at the sight of your dear faces drawing away from me that it was all I could do to stop myself jumping on to the train, and I must own that, afterwards, I cried. Feeling unequal to explaining my tears to a cabman, I decided to walk home.
As I started west along the New Road, I suddenly saw it, as I have never seen it before, as a scene from hell; the clatter of the horses; the stench of their ordure; a crossing-sweeper nearlyknocked down by a brushmaker's wagon; a woman crying 'Stunning oranges!', yet so drearily you could tell she had lost all hope of selling her handful of pitifully wizened fruit, and so providing something for her child's supper; a boy turning carter-wheels, and the men on the roof of an omnibus tossing halfpennies and farthings at him, and then guffawing as he fell into the gutter. And everywhere a yellow, choking haze, so thick that, even in the middle of the morning, you could not see more than fifty paces. And all the while a stream of tilers' carts and brick merchants' drays rattling by with provisions for the armies of new houses which daily carry this new Babylon still further into the lanes and meadows of Middlesex. Even as I rejoiced that you and the children would soon be breathing purer air and seeing lovelier sights, I felt myself alone and trapped inside some great engine from which all beauty, all joy and colour and mystery, had been banished.
This feeling so oppressed me that I quickly turned off and started to zig-zag through the maze of little streets and alleys to the west of Tottenham Court Road. My principle was simple enough: so long as I continued a certain distance west, and then a certain distance south, I must eventually come to Oxford Street, and avoid getting badly lost. And so it was that I crossed Portland Place (where, all those years ago, my journey to you so improbably began), entered a mean, dusty little court hung with dripping laundry that was already smudged with soot, and suddenly emerged into a street of handsome old-fashioned houses that seemed oddly familiar. But it was not the familiarity of everyday: rather the ghostly brilliance of some long-lost childish memory, or of something glimpsed once in a dream. I stood for perhaps two minutes, surveying the line of dark windows and blackened brickwork and heavy brass-handled doors. When and why had I seen them before? What was the original, of which they were such a plangent echo? Try as I might, I could not find it. All I noted was that my mind seemed somehow to associate it with feelings of powerlessness and smallness and a kind of awe.
Still musing, I set off again. After fifty yards or so I noticed a boy of eight or nine skulking in the area of one of the houses His cap was too large for him and his jacket too small, and he wore an odd pair of boots, one black and one brown. As I turned towards him, he shrank back against the damp wall and looked up at me with the terrified stare of a cornered animal. As much to allay his fear as to satisfy my own curiosity, I called down to him:
'What street is this?'
'Queen Anne Street,' he replied.
I was none the wiser: I recognized the name, but could not recall anyone I knew ever having lived there. I took a penny from my pocket and held out my hand.
'Thank you,' I said.
He cowered like a dog, torn between hunger for a scrap of meat and dread of being kicked.
'It's all right,' I said. 'I won't hurt you.'
He hesitated a moment, before scuttling up the steps and taking the coin. The, instead of running off as I had expected, he gazed wonderingly at me, as if even so small an act of kindness lay entirely beyond his knowledge and understanding of life. His eyes, I saw, were unhealthily large, and the pale skin was drawn into the hollows of his cheeks, as if age could not wait to put its mark upon him. And suddenly I thought of little Walter, and of the horror I should feel if I looked into his face and saw there such a world of want and pain and sickness. So I gave the boy sixpence more, and without a word he was gone, as if he feared that in another moment the spell would break, and the natural order of things would reassert itself, and I would change my mind and take the money back again.
And that is my coincidence. I already hear you saying: 'Walter! I see no coincidence'; but you shall, my love, I promise, if only you will be patient and read on.