Though Arkady Renko is absent from Smith's latest novel, the author of Red Square (1992), etc., has created instead a new protagonist, Jonathan Blair, a 19th-century man in the best muscular detective tradition. Until 1872, Blair was an avid explorer of Africa's Gold Coast, but now he has been exiled by his employer, Bishop Hannay, to the Lancashire mining town of Wigan. Blair's ostensible mission is to find John Rowland, the missing curate who was engaged to Hannay's daughter, but he quickly learns that he'll need all his bush survival skills just to stay alive in Wigan, where no one seems to want the curate found. Much of Blair's gritty charm lies in his hatred of all things English, just as he is hated in turn by the aristocratic Hannays, their peer relations, the Rowlands-and the miners. On the first day of his investigation, Blair steps on nearly every toe in a very touchy town, including those of Bill Jaxon, a miner skilled at a blood sport in which naked men fight with brass-studded clogs. Blair ends up on the wrong end of a clog more than once when he intuits that Jaxon's "pit girl" (a woman who sorts coal) may have lured the curate to his doom. Smith molds a spirited, sexy mystery and fires it with his characteristic love of atmosphere. But his real treat for readers is Blair, whose spicy observations imbue even this gray landscape with prismatic color, and whose verbal sparring matches with the Hannays and Rowlands are equal to Waugh in their hilarious, scathing send-up of English upper-class incivility. Smith's extravagant talent runs the spectrum here from sparkling dialogue and tantalizing mystery to grim, graphic depictions of mining life that sear both the conscience and the imagination. Simultaneous Random House Audio and large-print edition; author tour. (May)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
By the author of Gorky Park (1981), this novel, set in 19th-century Lancashire, mixes mining, mystery, and romance.
In "Gorky Park" (1981), "Polar Star" (1989), and other richly detailed novels, Martin Cruz Smith has taken readers to places they couldn't otherwise go. Typically, they are dark, hellish places where what passes for society strikes comfortable readers as codified savagery. In "Rose", set in 1872, he takes us to Wigan, a coal-rich suburb of Hell located in Lancashire, England. Mining engineer Jonathan Blair wants only to return to Africa, but his sponsor, coal baron and Anglican bishop Hannay, who funds African explorations, coerces him into going to Wigan to investigate the disappearance of a young curate who was engaged to Hannay's daughter. Blair--and the reader--are assaulted by the soot-covered coal-mining center where, for everyone but the Hannays, life is brutish and short. Blair's investigation antagonizes miners, mine supervisors, and the bishop's splenetic daughter, but when he falls in love with a "pit girl" named Rose, the antagonisms turn deadly. "Rose" has everything a compelling novel needs: Blair is a fascinating protagonist, by turns a hero and a boor; other significant characters are complex and as multifaceted as a chunk of coal; the mystery is gripping. But it is the horrific, mesmerizing portrayal of the dark, hellish Wigan, the mines themselves, and the lives of miners that makes this novel much more than a good read.
Smith (Red Square, 1992, etc.) not only sets his exuberant, sly new novel in Victorian England but goes Victorian novelists one better, conjuring up a plot device at the heart of this mystery that Dickens would envy.
Set in the town of Wigan, in Lancashire, this latest from Smith doesn't simply evoke the past, it plunges us into the gritty reality of a mid-19th-century community dominated by its vast coal mines. We learn an extraordinary amount about the brutal world of mining, but more importantly we come to feel a part of Wigan, so actual do its streets and inhabitants seem. It's this dense world that lingers: The plot is, with its one exception, a rather unsurprising mystery. Jonathan Blair, a mining engineer and explorer who has returned from Africa under a cloud (there are rumors of fraud), is summoned by his erstwhile employer, Bishop Hannay (who owns much of Wigan, including its largest coal mine), and set on the trail of the fianceé of Hannay's daughter Charlotte. John Maypole, a fervent young minister, had disappeared on the same day that an explosion in Hannay's mine killed 75 men. Charlotte, bright, acerbic, radical, takes an immediate dislike to the laconic Blair. He, in turn, is fascinated by Rose Molyneux, a remarkably independent "pit girl" (women employed by the mines, pit girls are notorious in England for their clothesthey wear trousers under vestigial dressesand the supposed easiness of their morals). Blair is menaced by two miners, blithe sadists determined to stop his inquiry. A dogged, shrewd investigator, he takes a huge amount of punishment before uncovering Maypole's sad fate. And, in the midst of a dangerous affair with Rose, he discovers the remarkable scheme linking her and Charlotte Hannay. It's a dazzling moment.
Blair, Rose, and Smith's other characters are wonderful creations, robust and distinctive. The crimes here are unremarkable, but the world evoked is memorable, glowing with life.
"A superb thriller that will keep the reader breathless right up to the final page."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"THE MOST INTERESTING AND RICHLY TEXTURED CRIME STORY OF THE SEASON."
"[SMITH] AT THE TOP OF HIS FORM . . . It is fun, the well-plotted, dense fun of an intelligent, shadowy, literary enigma. . . . Brisk and edifying entertainment."
--The New York Times
"A JOY TO READ."
--The Washington Post Book World