When a bullet sidelines blind magistrate Sir John Fielding early in this seventh outing (Death of a Colonial, 1999, etc.), his teenaged protégé Jeremy Proctor, eager to prove his maturity and his grasp of the great man’s famous interrogative methods, leaps into the investigative breach. Seemingly gratuitous murders have been following a rash of well-planned robberies in the great houses of St. James, and Jeremy’s brief as acting Bow Street magistrate is to track down the gang of Afro-British criminals alleged to be responsible, all the while fighting for the respect of victims, witnesses, and Bow Street Runners alike. Parlor-bound Sir John never really relinquishes control, but Jeremy’s more active pursuit allows Alexander to explore some complicated byways of the 18th-century British psyche, from its hypocritical attitude toward blacks and colonial slavery to the secrets that lurk in the hearts of the lowliest cook and serving maid. Echoing fissures also develop in the series’ more youthful regulars, with fellow ward Clarissa Roundtree, Annie the cook, and Jeremy all chastened by their respective encounters with Dr. Samuel Johnson, unrequited love, and the reflection of his own youthful arrogance. Sir John himself lives to fight another day, but Alexander’s gallant attempt to treat contemporary racial prejudice without using its politically incorrect vocabulary sometimes leads him perilously close to anachronism, particularly in set speeches by his fair-minded blind justice.
Sir John’s final gesture, however—a particularly dramatic precursor to today’s lineup of suspects—leaves the pair in triumphantly good form.