The bloody death of a peer draws in a rambunctious but thoroughly intelligent young cabinetmaker.
Gleeson’s 1999 nonfiction, The Arcanum, was a detailed look at 18th-century Europe’s development of the porcelain industry. Clearly comfortable in and deeply knowledgeable about that era, Gleeson applies a rich veneer of similar detail to a pre-police procedural. In this case the proto-cop is Nathaniel Hopson, a lusty lad nearing the end of his apprenticeship to socially and professionally ambitious master cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. Sent by Chippendale to complete the installation of a lavishly carved library in Horseheath Hall, seat of the irritable Lord Montfort near Cambridge, Hopson is pressed into service as an emergency footman at a dinner Montfort throws to show off the gorgeous new bookshelves. In the middle of dinner a shot rings out. Stumbling into the darkened library, tripping over clues and red herrings, Hopson discovers the bloody corpse of Lord Montfort. Montfort, whose gambling debts to dinner guest Lord Foley may impoverish his widow and son, appears to have taken his own life. But the fatal pistol is in the wrong place, there are leeches mysteriously attached to his neck, a beautifully carved little box in his hand, bloody square-toed footprints leading to a window, and buckets of blood on the window sill. Hopson is blessed with innate skills of mechanical deconstruction, and he begins at once to deconstruct the death scene, leading Lord Foley to enlist his help in sorting out the various queernesses that are complicated by the discovery of the body of Hopson’s fellow apprentice and recently missing best friend John Partridge frozen in a nearby pond. Hopson’s detection will involve the lovely manager of a luxury-wood works, throw him into the messy lives of his betters, and irritate the already grumpy but not yet legendary Mr. Chippendale.
The mystery at the heart feels lifted from an early Christie or Sayers, but the period detail is rich and pleasantly distracting.