LAWLESS and the Flowers of Sin by William Sutton (Titan, £7.99) is set in London in the 1860s, where Sergeant Campbell Lawless of Scotland Yard is instructed to produce a census of the capital’s sex industry.
His boss intends this to prove that prostitution has declined under his watch. But instead Lawless uncovers a kind of shadow capitalism, a vast network encompassing bordellos and street-walkers, abduction, slavery and murder.
It spreads into every level of society, from the glamorous rich to the desperate poor, and the businessmen who run it will readily take any measures to protect their dividends.
This is an extraordinary novel, deserving of the widest readership not only for its impressive literary merits but also for the breadth and subtlety of its political, moral and philosophical exploration of “the great social evil.”
Sutton doesn’t tell you what to think about these matters. But he does show you what you ought to be thinking about.
The parallels with 21st-century debates about the selling of sex are drawn without undue emphasis but are nonetheless unmissable and discomfiting.
It’s a marvellous read but be warned — the subject matter is harrowing and the author shows his readers little mercy.
The Circle of Sappho by David Lassman and Terence James (Mystery Press, £8.99) takes place a few decades earlier, in the Bath of 1804.
There Jack Swann, gentleman of means and private detective, continues his lifelong hunt for his father’s murderers.
At the same time, he investigates an apparent murder-suicide at a boarding school involving a teacher obsessed with the legends of ancient Lesbos, gets suckered into a duel, encounters historical characters including Jane Austen and Thomas Bunn, fights organised crime amid the slums of the spa city and becomes entangled with the secret police force attached to the Alien Office in its struggle to disrupt Napoleonic plots.
At times, this second in a continuing series feels like a stew with a few too many ingredients in it. But it is full of interesting characters and events and dramatically brings to life the West Country of the Regency period.
The Time to Kill by Mason Cross (Orion, £12.99) is a superior example of the chase thriller.
Carter Blake used to work for a secret US government department charged with carrying out those operations that were too illegal even for the CIA to take on.
He’d accepted the traditional excuse that it was all right to break rules in a good cause provided you knew where to draw the line — until a whistleblower showed him that when the rules go, “the line” tends to vanish too.
Now his former employers are coming after him, the truce he made with them when he left no longer in force. But they trained him well and he’s not going to be easy to kill.
There’s all the set-piece action you could hope for.
But, amid the excitement, Cross writes with a thoughtfulness and wryness not always found in such stories.