A striking, handsomely staged and peopled court drama and mystery set in the rough-edged city of Glasgow, Scotland, of 1787- 88. A young woman is on trial for infanticide, while among those closest to her break currents of rage, greed, lust, and also compassion. Stirling, author of several meaty historicals set in Scotland roughly of the same period, has produced a rich and solid entertainment. In court, the judges ``lolled like lions'' while one ``stroked a long feather quill with fingers like a kestrel's claws.'' The prisoner, beautiful Clare Kelso, nursery servant and very distant relation of the banking family of Purves, is accused of feeding arsenic to her baby Peterkin, sired, without benefit of marriage, by a Mr. Frederick Striker, a glittering newcomer to Glasgow, a merchant in interesting (and rather foggy) commodities. Clare admits to feeding the baby a powder she thought was sulphur (a common remedy for rashes). Among those attending the trial: kind Andrew Purves, who had encouraged what he thought would be an advantageous marriage for Clare to Striker, and who himself has found a deep and exotic love; Edwina, Andrew's horrid wife who lusted after Striker; a Purves country cousin, in whose company poor Clare attended her first ball; and widowed Eunice Bates, Striker's sister, statuesque and stunning but with a scarred face, who loves her brother in spite of their shared deadly secret. If Clare did not kill the baby (and that seems obvious)—who packed the fatal powder? Who would gladly see Clare die—or save her, perhaps for a special nasty reason? Throughout are scenes of crowded rooms and streets, inns, busy kitchens, and open roads. Again, Stirling's character sketches, even of walk-ons, are memorable: an apothecary clerk was ``as small as a leveret...[with] a pinkness about his eyes that suggested he wept often and long.'' With occasional bursts of neo-Dickensian observation and a leisurely pace, here's a novel to be savored slowly.
Read full book review >