Now that they’ve bonded over the writing life and homicide investigation, eminent Victorian Charles Dickens and eminence-in-training Wilkie Collins tackle a second case of murder.
No one thinks Edwin Milton-Hayes was a particularly outstanding painter. So why did whoever slashed his throat in his studio take the trouble to slash one of his last paintings, as well? The answer, Dickens swiftly decides, is that Milton-Hayes, whose plummy name isn’t the one he was born with, was a blackmailer with a novel approach. Paintings like The Night Prowler, Forbidden Fruit, Taken in Adultery, Den of Iniquity, Root of All Evil, and Winter of Despair, commissioned by the monumentally clueless Canon Rutter, showed compromising situations in which Milton-Hayes’ society acquaintances had placed themselves, with the actual portraits of subjects, like talented young artist Walter Hamilton, flirtatious wife Molly French, schoolgirl Florence Gummidge and her mother, gallery owner William Jordan, and his wife, Helen, to be revealed later unless the painter's financial demands were met. What’s particularly alarming to Wilkie is that his troubled younger brother, Charley, seems to pop up everywhere Wilkie and Dick look—making Inspector Field, of London’s Detective Force, all but certain that Charley is the killer. As in the Victorian sleuths’ debut (Season of Darkness, 2019), Harrison alternates chapters narrated by Wilkie, who’s constantly fretting over his lack of progress on Hide and Seek, his second novel, with distinctly less successful third-person chapters presented from the viewpoint of Sesina, the fearful, impressionable, curious Collins housemaid. Sadly, Dickens himself cuts a much less impressive figure this time, playing a supporting role till the very last minute, when he’s on hand to pull a rabbit from his hat—a surprise that no doubt pleases him as much as his readers.
More ingenious than Season of Darkness but altogether less striking. Best wait and hope for two out of three.