Even though he’s a Bow Street Runner, Matthew Hawkwood can get caught up in international intrigue.
The dashingly mysterious Hawkwood is entirely suitable as a Regency-era James Bond. Hawkwood’s reputation for intelligence and bravery earned him a spot working for the chief magistrate, James Read, at the Bow Street Public Office. He’s a Runner, a top-level investigator, tackling the toughest assignments. Even though Bonaparte is still messing about on the continent, Hawkwood, a veteran of the famed 95th Rifles in Wellington’s Peninsular War, needed assignment elsewhere because he killed the son of an aristocrat in a duel. Now Hawkwood has been assigned to find the pair of highwaymen who killed a Royal Navy courier outside of London, but there’s more afoot, and Hawkwood doesn’t get all the story. McGee (Ratcatcher, 2006, etc.) decorates his adventure with historical personages and incidents, including the American Robert Fulton’s attempt to sell the British or the French, or both, a “submersible” to deliver a “torpedo” capable of sinking a ship of the line. There are the requisite good guys, including a patriotic clockmaker; an appropriate number of traitors among the aristocracy and the admiralty; and a beauty to be bedded, Catherine de Varesne, a French woman posing as a refugee royalist while working to further the emperor’s ambitions. The story is slow to come together, although pleasantly intriguing in atmosphere, but seemingly lacking one big bad villain for the reader to want to see drawn and quartered. The derring-do is close to standard, and McGee’s characterizations are easy to buy into, especially well-sketched minor players like Nathaniel Jago, Hawkwood’s sergeant from his days in the 95th, and Ezra Twigg, Read’s never-to-be-outwitted assistant. The best of the writing, however, comes through McGee’s capacity for rendering Regency-era London, from the street corner God-botherers to the ubiquitous packs of feral children to the footpads and ne’er-do-wells lurking in the grimiest corners of cesspools like St. Giles Rookery.
Acceptable action. Vague villainy. Intriguing milieu.