An Unpardonable Crime, by Andrew Taylor, Read by Simon Vance, Blackstone Audiobooks,
Andrew Taylor, an author I’d never even heard of prior to discovering An Unpardonable Crime, has performed two miracles between its covers. In the first case, he introduces on the stage of his novel a real person, from real life, a very young Edgar Allan Poe, and he refuses to accord him any special status. He is merely a boy like other boys, though with a temperament very much in line with what one reads of the man from biographers. In the second case, he has written a damn near flawless nineteenth century novel.
Too often one finds authors give us attitudinal anachronisms such as very broad minded tolerance for other races and homosexuals and atheists and whatnot (not that such people didn’t exist; they were themselves a very, very fractional minority). Or authors write stylistically in such a fashion that the effort shows. Something rings a little tin to the ear. Not so here. Our hero Thomas Shield is discomfited by a beating he sees a schoolboy give another but shrugs it off. They have to learn sometime, he knows. He is a non-judgmental character in his exposure to others, but he neither comments for nor against. Even the story’s sometimes surprisingly unabashed mentions of sex are forgivable when we take into account that the novel is written as the main character’s narrative, a document never meant for publication but for his own remembrance.
Published originally in Britain as The American Boy (which perhaps gives too much focus to Poe, as its American title gives too much credit to what proves a minor plot point near the end), the novel opens with our hero at a job interview, a clever trick as it allows his interlocutor to prompt him to inform us of just who it is we hear speak. A rather brutal man, his new boss Mr. Bransby lays into Shields for his past conduct. Before the chapter — and the interview — is over we meet young Mr. Allan who has his ears boxed by Bransby. “Kindness is all very well,” he tells his newly hired staff member, “but it don’t answer in the long run.” We know quite well what kind of a school story this is going to be, we think. Dickens all the way.
Instead, it rather comes off as if Dickens got together with Jane Austen and the two of them somehow channeled a bit of Raymond Chandler into the mix. There are touches of social caste and race and economic class worthy of Dickens throughout, such as the various ways characters relate and react to the black employee of Mr. Noak, Salutation Harmwell. And then there are the social considerations of the garish nouveau riche lording their slightly elevated position over their social inferiors and whinging ingratiatingly toward their betters, while poverty struck women ache for love and/or marriage a la Austen. Our hero even finds himself torn between a lovely widow and her vivacious if occasionally unmannered cousin. This passage reflecting on the particulars of reservations for a party are somewhat to the point, demonstrating the niceties of contingency in those years:
Sir George most obligingly rode over on Thursday morning with the news that a suite of apartments in a house in Westgate had become available for the night of the assembly. Lord Vauden and his party had taken them for several nights but the sudden illness of a near relation from whom he had expectations had compelled him to withdraw. Sir George had taken the liberty of bespeaking the apartments in Mr. Carswall's name, though of course this conferred no obligation upon Mr. Carswall, and it would be the work of a moment to cancel the arrangement if it did not suit because Captain Ruispidge was engaged to dine Gloucester that very evening.
Ah, but what is all of this without crime? And when young Mr. Allan (for Poe at that time went by the name of his foster parents) and his schoolboy friend Charlie Frant are accosted by a drunken man in the street, Mr. Shield, their intrepid instructor tracks down the man and discovers him to be none other than David Poe, Edgar’s long lost father. From this chance discovery, a number of plots are sprung into motion including the collapse of the bank Mr. Frant runs , the uncovering of a plot of treason during the War of 1812, more than one murder, and several assaults. At this stage the novel lurches impressively in and out of the Dickens territory, the Austen social climbing and marital dilemmas of Charlie’s aunt and his great uncle, and the brutally disfiguring murder of Mr. Frant.
Our hero has the luck (good? bad?) to be at once constantly in the thick of things without ever trying on his own and without any awkward shoehorning by the author. Instead, we are given the general impression that there are wheels within wheels, things moving at both a higher level to our hero and below him, things he only catches glimpses of in his adventures.
As his investigation, his curiosity, his nosing around leads Mr. Shield deeper into how all of those threads tie together, Taylor juggles and interweaves and writes a kind of prose so good you forget at times exactly when what you’re reading was written. Upon the discovery of a severed finger, possibly identifying the battered body as Frant’s, Shield reflects:
I took a long pull of ale. When I was alone, and safe from observation, I twitched aside the neckcloth. The object was rust-coloured in part, but mostly dirty yellow. On one end was a long fingernail spotted with what might have been ink.
The trouble with wishes is that they sometimes come true. I had at last found something which no matter how long I looked at it would not dissolve into a mere speculation. I had discovered an indisputable fact. And I wished with all my heart that I had not.
The plotting becomes ever more complex, in that nineteenth century way where not one single meeting, discovery, or overheard snippet of conversation isn’t put to work in filling in the pieces of a great missing central mystery. Yet Taylor is able to write from our later vantage point, seeing the obviousness in Dickens’ plot structures, a prominence that smacks of quaintness to our own fancies yet was taken completely for granted centuries ago, and he smudges those coincidences with opacity. Taylor even manages to invoke Poe’s own later career when some toughs, disturbed at Shield’s curiosity, nail him up inside a coffin in order to transfer him from one part of town to another.
Again, though, the novel could stand on its own without bringing Poe into it. An epilogue penned by another relative upon discovering Shield’s manuscript goes into some detail about Poe, linking the author’s mysterious death in part vaguely to this story, suggesting a considerable amount of action taking place outside the tale’s parameters. None of that is particularly necessary; the boy could be any boy with a long absent father. Campaigns in Britain’s far flung colonies were always leading to parted families reunited after death was assumed. There’s no particular objection to the boy being Poe, just no particular justification for it either.
Nevertheless, Taylor’s novel reads fast and enthralling with short chapters, a restless sense of mystery, enough courting to keep those fires simmering even when it seems our hero hasn’t a chance, and all in all, he spins his plates better than I’ve seen it done in many a year. All this while evoking a long bygone era with the kind of pitch-perfect prose that could fool the ear of many an Austenite.
Reader Simon Vance has the kind of buttery smooth English tones so prominent in voice-over work yet he manages to grab onto each character and give them something distinctive without being obvious about it. From Salutation Harmwell’s deep purr to his boss Mr. Noak’s clipped cadences to Carswall’s up-by-the-bootstraps growl, Vance delivers them all impressively while at the same time piercing Taylor’s sometimes clause nested sentences with a clarity that leaves you never in doubt.