Intellectual curiosity entices a young Englishman into a dangerous investigation of his grandfather’s checkered past.
Seb Rolvenden, a writer who lives in a lighthouse in Essex, narrates the story of a life-altering experience that he was fortunate to survive. It begins with the receipt of a notebook and other miscellaneous possessions from his namesake grandfather in London, a recently deceased family legend whose fame and achievements have never been explained, only alluded to. The notebook describes a murder scene in lurid prose: The elder Seb awakes groggily one morning in 1899 after a festive evening to find himself naked and near the murdered body of one Julian Rawbeck, killed with Seb’s razor (though Seb has no memory of it). According to the notebook, Rawbeck was a brilliant artist but a despicable person. The more the younger Seb and his ladylove Leah dig into his grandfather’s troubled past, the more obsessed Seb becomes. His research uncovers victims who include a teenage rent boy and a young woman killed in a pub. He also learns of “The Ruffian on the Stair,” a missing Rawbeck masterpiece. Inadvertently, Seb’s probe sends the false signal that he has the canvas, triggering some unwelcome, and sometimes dangerous, attention.
Seb’s verve and impulsiveness infuse the tale with an infectious charm that carries it through some of its more arcane episodes. Newman’s fiction debut isn’t always taut, but it’s consistently, intelligently entertaining.