For some 30 years now, Bernard Cornwell has been one of the most prolific writers in the western hemisphere. With over 40 books to his credit, he has settled comfortably into the “historic fiction” genre and has become famous for his “Sharpe series” that follows the adventures of his protagonist, Richard Sharpe, during the Napoleonic Wars (24 novels). The entire series is being filmed by BBC and suddenly, American readers are struggling to read and/or view the film versions in their correct order.
In addition, Cornwell has a “Starbuck series” that deals with the American Civil War. There are also additional series, including a King Arthur trilogy, a Holy Grail series and a “Saxon series” set in 9th century England (not to mention a few bestselling “thrillers” and the adventures of a protagonist named Captain Rideout Sandman who lives a precarious but exciting life in 19th century London).
Considering Cornwell’s impressive list of works, this reviewer decided to select a work at random. (I found Gallows Thief in the “used book section” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.) I immediately found myself totally engrossed in the daily life of Captain Rideout Sandman, a colorful survivor of the Napoleonic Wars, an honored soldier who has fallen on hard times. When Sandman’s father is forced to declare bankruptcy, the subsequent shame brings ruin to the family. After the father commits suicide, honorable Sandman sells his commission in order to pay some of his father’s debts; however, the resulting scandal eventually results in the cancellation of Sandman’s wedding to Lady Eleanor Forrest.
Within a short time, Rideout has serious financial problems and is attempting to eke out a living by playing cricket. When some of Rideout’s friends recommend him for employment with the government, he is suddenly offered a “temporary position” by Viscount Sidmouth, a high-placed official of the Royal Court. Specifically, Sandman is asked to investigate the recent murder of the Countess of Avebury, even though the alleged killer has been arrested tried, found guilty and is awaiting execution at London’s notorious Newgate Prison. It seems that the Queen of England has expressed a personal interest in the affair, and the Viscount has been instructed to submit an official report regarding the specific details of the crime — a duty he readily delegates to Sandman.
At first, Rideout thinks that the “investigation” is merely a rubber stamp procedure to satisfy the Queen; consequently, he mistakenly believes that his official duties will be over in a few hours — especially since everyone assures him that the condemned felon, a painter named Charles Corday, had raped and stabbed the Countess of Avebury in the studio where she had recently posed for a commissioned (nude) portrait. However, when Captain Sandman visits Corday in prison, the accused turns out to be a frail “ pixie,” 19th century London jargon for a homosexual. (Gallows Thief is permeated with street jargon.)
Rideout’s subsequent encounter with the bloated and offensive Sir George Phillips, Corday’s “mentor/employer,” suggests that Corday is not only innocent but is a “stand-in” for someone else. In addition, a witness to the murder, a house servant named Meg, has mysteriously vanished. Finally, if matters were not complicated enough, Captain Sandman finds himself at odds with a “gentlemen’s club” called the Seraphim. The membership of Seraphim consists of wealthy, arrogant young men who spend their time in gambling, drunkenness and “carnal indiscretions” (much like London’s Hellfire Clubs of the early 1700s). One of the Seraphim’s current hobbies is collecting nude paintings of notable aristocratic ladies ... like the Countess of Avebury (who is not what she seems).
As Captain Sandman searches for Meg, he finds himself dealing with a daunting number of additional problems, including assassins and debtors. His morale is somewhat improved when he discovers that the Lady Eleanor not only still loves him, but has even suggested a future elopement to Scotland! A man sent by the Seraphim Club to kill Rideout turns out to be Sgt. Berrigan, another veteran of Waterloo. When Berrigan decides to cast his lot with Capt. Sandman, the two become friends and set off on a nerve-racking journey to prove Corday’s innocence. It is an odyssey that will end with the two friends (and Robin Hood) standing before a scaffold at Newgate Prison, surrounded by a raving mob.
Much of the appeal of Bernard Cornwell’s novels is due to the amazing depths of his research. For example, some of the most harrowing passages in Gallows Thief contain graphic descriptions of Newgate’s stench and squalor with particular emphasis on its notorious public executions. Indeed, the novel’s Prologue gives a surreal (and historically accurate) account of the bizarre practice of allowing aristocrats the privilege of being seated on the scaffold so that they may witness the death struggles of the condemned. The carnival-like atmosphere, the casual cruelties and the inept methods employed by the hangman are described with meticulous accuracy.
Thankfully, Cornwell’s penchant for detail is also evident throughout the novel. As Capt. Sandman attends cricket matches, drinks with his friends in the Wheatsheaf Tavern or watches a musical extravaganza at the Covent Gardens Theater, the pages of Gallows Thief exude the smells, sounds and sights of London in the 1820s. In one scene, Cornwell captures the image of a louse crawling in a gentleman’s powdered wig at the theater; the raucous laughter of the audience when a pickpocket’s fingers are snared by the fishhooks in his would-be victim’s coat. Amid the flicker of gaslights, he notes the sheen of sweat on the powdered faces of elderly aristocrats — and the pervasive smell of unwashed bodies.
Gallows Thief contains an impressive assortment of vibrant characters, including the earthy and decidedly sexy Sally Hood, sister of the notorious Robin Hood (who manages to pursue his career as a master highwayman while occasionally assisting Capt. Sandman in his quest for justice); an assortment of venal, privileged lords, ministers and lawyers — all captured in true-to-life portraits. In addition, Cornwell’s minor characters: beggars, doxies, and posturing nobles, all become vividly alive as they move through the varied scenes: ornate and often abandoned mansions, taverns, slums, prisons and rural farms.
Cornwell’s appeal can be summed up by a recent quote from the Washington Post: “The strength that have come to characterize (Cornwell’s) fiction — immaculate historical reconstruction and the ability to tell a ripping yarn.” Perhaps that also means that Cornwell will launch yet another series: the adventures of Capt. Rideout Sandman, late of the King’s army.