Blind Justice - Bruce Alexander (1994)

Historical mysteries exist as a sub-genre of mystery fiction. By "historical mysteries" I don't mean, "What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste?" or "Who was Jack the Ripper?" Rather I mean novels which are essentially contemporary detective novels set in eras other than the present. The most famous example is probably the "Brother Cadfael" novels set in and around medieval Shrewsbury. However, if one is so inclined one can read about murders in Victorian London, Republican or Imperial Rome, Pharonic Egypt and more. There is a further sub-genre (a sub-sub-genre?) which uses actual historical figures as detectives. If you've ever felt that Jane Austen would have made a better detective than novelist, there's a series of books out there for you.

As one might expect, the results of these attempts to recast modern detective novels, especially those with actual historical figures, vary a great deal. In Blind Justice, Bruce Alexander (a nom de plume for Bruce Cook) has had a reasonable amount of success. He avoids many of the jarring anachronisms of many of these series (the convolutions required to do forensic medicine in the 12th century are fairly elaborate) by setting his book in Georgian England and taking the historical Sir John Fielding as his detective. Sir John was a London magistrate and instrumental in founding the first professional police force in England.

The book itself is well-enough written. It captures the spirit of the time adequately; although it is not an era with which I am particularly well-informed, there were no obvious anachronisms. Good research is essential if one is to write a believable historical novel, and Alexander has clearly done his homework. The characters are interesting and engaging, a diverse lot of rogues and villians providing a nice contrast to the more upright citizens who are the protagonists. A nice touch is provided by the fact that Sir John, being blind, requires an assistant in his investigations, thus providing a better rationale for a young sidekick than one usually finds.

The plot is decent enough, although unexceptional; if one reads a lot of mysteries, the twist ending is apparent well before the climactic scene. That is not, however, a fatal flaw in a mystery if the pacing, characters and incidents are compelling enough - as is the case here. To summarize: Lord Goodhope dies in the classic locked room. It is, naturally, not a suicide. Suspicion falls on the half-brother, the mistress and the creditor to whom the victim owes money. In the end, after appropriate twists and turns, truth outs and evil is punished.

If I sound a bit lukewarm, that is not my intent. Mystery novel plots tend to be rather formulaic. The appeal lies in the writing style and the characters. For historical novels, there may also be appeal in the setting. In all of those respects, this book does a better job than most; while I did not feel the need to run out purchase the remaining nine books in the series, I will certainly pick them up if I see them at my usual street-side vendor, and that is decidely not the case with many mystery series. In short, while this book is not truly exceptional it is well above average.

Overall Grade: B

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