The Worms of Euston Square by William Sutton

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The Worms of Euston Square by William Sutton

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Complex plot and a well researched and described setting of 1860s London - the greatest city in the world (and the most stinking) are main assets of this Victorian mystery. The main character is bit bland and the pace takes time to pick up, but overall recommended for an enjoyable, well written, atmospheric journey 150 years back in time.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 362 Date: August 2006
Publisher: Mercat Press
ISBN: 184183100X

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It's London in the early 1860's. Time of Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It's the height of Victorian Britain, more than 10 years after the (mainly continental) upheavals of 1848's Spring of Nations and the 1851's Great Exhibition which had paved more ways for the Empire to grow in strength.

It's the time of triumphant engineering, post Brunel and with Bazalgette consolidating London's sewer network to take the waste away from the river; the first underground trains are rumbling in their tunnels. Civically minded reformers go hand in hand with speculators at making London the greatest city in the world. But cholera and typhoid are still claiming numerous victims and despite the beginnings of curbs on the worst excesses of the industrial capitalism, there is still untold deprivation and squalor, with whole families living in horrible hovels and burst sewers resulting in death of dwellers of foul cellars. Karl Marx is studying in the British Museum Library and those wanting to improve the lot of the majority have to choose between reformist and revolutionary paths.

Campbell Lawless is the son of a Scottish clockmaker, newly recruited to the police and co-opted by the gruff and cynical but seemingly efficient Inspector Wardle of the Scotland Yard. A chain of events that starts with a stolen clock mechanism and a broken hydraulic crane spouting water spectacularly in front of a not-yet-open Euston Station will take Campbell from the music halls of Hoxton and taverns of Clerkenwell all the way to Windsor Castle. He's trying to find a mysterious activist Berwick Skelton who might be seeking retribution from the high and mighty for the general social injustice (and having his actress fiancée stolen by one of the philandering gentlemen).

The plot of The Worms of Euston Square is diverting enough while doesn't exactly make the book impossible to put down. It picks up considerably in the later parts of the book, too. Campbell is somehow bland and a rather transparent character, but this transparency makes him a good mirror through which to see the setting and is balanced by more full-blooded figures of Inspector Wardle and his emancipated librarian sidekick Ruth Villiers.

Both Campbell and Ruth are quite anachronistic in their attitudes and behaviours relating to opposite sex (much more modern and free than they would almost certainly be in reality of 1860's). But this rather adds to enjoyment of the book as psychological realism is not its main point and might make it more palatable to a modern reader. In fact, both the plots and the characters are just a good pretext giving the occasion to trample the salons, streets and sewers of London, visit theatres and pubs, homes of the great and the good (including very funny vignettes of Marx's and Dickens' households), slums and royal palaces.

There are a lot of modern allusions and anachronistic nods to the reader, in fact The Worms of Euston Square is almost a pastiche novel as they don't get written nowadays, a bit Dickensian really, alternately grave and humorous, sentimental and bathetic. Despite many serious reflections, a few bodies thrown in and a denouement verging on apocalyptic, the book maintains a light tone overall. The plot's engine of a terrorist threat seems very serious, but the light tone is helped by the fact that this threat's perpetrator seems motivated by a romantic disappointment and to the end we don't know how bad (or mad?) he really is. There is, of course, the question of reputations of the high and mighty, and the characters take it all rather seriously (as they would) but we don't have to, most of the time. There are subjects raised that should be taken seriously, though; including the possibility of social justice and the role of police in society (defenders of the people or a corrupt strong arm of establishment?).

It's a well written and constructed book which ambles along for a few years of the storyline without becoming boring. Unusually for a debut, there don't seem to be any surplus subplots or sections that would be better edited out. I have not noticed any grating phrases or sentences nor overtly florid or kitschy descriptions, neither for scenes nor emotions. The stylistic and psychological anachronisms seem all purposeful and work well, while sections purporting to be the copies of actual writing of the time maintain the Victorian flavour. The research seems impressive in scale and impeccable in accuracy to me, though I am not a historian, but there areno obvious blunders noticeable.

I read The Worms of Euston Square over a long period in many 15 minutes stretches and it's not the best way to read this book. It needs a few evenings of at least an hour or two for the reader to immerse themselves in its world. Despite this I enjoyed The Worms of Euston Square and I think many readers would too. William Sutton has created a complicated plot and a likeable if a bit bland character whom I can easily see engaged in other investigations (hopefully still with the help of Ruth). Where the book really shines is in its excellent evocation of Victorian London: a living, breathing, stinking beast of a city, terrible and awe inspiring.

As a crime mystery only The Worms of Euston Square scores a solid average three stars, maybe above, but as a gently tongue in cheek Victorian romp and a magnificent picture of a 1860's imperial capital - four. Recommended for an enjoyable, well written and researched, atmospheric journey 150 years back in time.

PS. To find out what (or who) The Worms actually are, you need to read the book!

If this book appeals then you might enjoy Stone's Fall by Iain Pears.

Booklists.jpg The Worms of Euston Square by William Sutton is in the Top Ten Books About London.

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Jill said:

I reckon Conor would like this - would you put it a level I'd enjoy on a train journey and a bookworm 11 year old would think was great? That's the flavour I'm getting. We like books like that in our house - it feels like a BOGOF!

Magda replied:

I don't know, really...there is a lot of rather lofty musings of revolutionary/reformist nature which perhaps might go over the head of an even very bookish 11 year old. Plus many of the allusions (for example 'if it goes like that one day we'll be ruled by some grocer's daughter' ) will probably go over his head.

The horrible bits (a bit of the book and the final showdown take part in the sewers) are described in an acceptable manner, factual rather than TOO evocative.

There is one scene of a human being dying in a rather horrific manner but it's described by 'the emancipated librarian' character in a way that makes it unlikely it will plague a grownup reader with nightmares - not sure about an 11 year old, though.

Think Dickens in his less cuddly incarnations, in a more modern language.

To be honest I don't remember myself well from that age, though remember reading Hugo's The Notre Dame of Paris at about 12 (and never again afterwards) and I still sometimes remember poor Esmeralda buried alive in that horrible cell with shivers.

Jill said:

Yep, that sounds ideal. We WANT the shivery experiences we'll remember when we're older, and we don't really mind if parts go over our heads. Conor and I are peas in a pod. I was exactly like that.

Magda replied:

OK. Though I warned you (but then I might be overtly concerned as I developed a true obsessive-compulsive thoughts episode at the age of about 10 from reading a - grown up but perfectly understandable - short story about slaves working in ancient Greek mines...).

Considering that a major part is played by a gang of very clever street/sewer children (spoiler here?) it might be OK.