The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher

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The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A larger-than-life pastiche of Victorian penny dreadful fiction, The Kingdom of Bones takes the reader on a headlong transatlantic tour of music halls, boxing rings and slaughter houses. Rip-roaringly good fun.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Ebury Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780091950132

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'If you like this sort of thing…' reads a line from Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones, 'then here comes the kind of thing you’ll like'. It’s describing the opening music for a theatrical number, but it’s an almost perfect tagline for The Kingdom of Bones itself. If you like Victorians, vaudeville and villainy, if you like prize-fighting and police chases and possession by the Devil, then here comes The Kingdom of Bones. It’s the kind of thing that you’re really going to like.

The year is 1888, and someone in Edmund Whitlock’s two-bit travelling theatrical company has been committing gruesome murders in every town on the itinerary. The police are closing in, until a clever piece of misdirection by the real murderer leads to ex-prize-fighter Tom Sayers being wrongly arrested for the crimes. He escapes by the skin of his teeth, but that’s only the beginning: now he’s the only person who can save his love Louise from the influence of the real killer, a man who believes he has been chosen to carry out an ancient evil…

A rip-roaringly exuberant romp through the Victorian underworld, literally as well as figuratively, The Kingdom of Bones begins with an English repertory company in the 1880s and ends in the Louisiana bayous in the early twentieth century. Every scene in it is dialled up to eleven. Its plot unfolds with dizzying speed and magnificent unlikelihood, taking the reader on a dazzling stereoscopic journey that’s as delightful as it is ridiculous. It’s nominally a detective story, even though Gallagher’s main detective, Sebastian Becker, doesn’t have a huge amount to do (the story is mostly narrated to him by Sayers). He’s an appealing character, though, and I predict a promising and more useful future for him in follow-on novels.

With the same highly-coloured penny dreadful feel as Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, and the creative nastiness of some of the more no-holds barred Roald Dahl stories, The Kingdom of Bones is a novel written for those wise adults who know that you can never be too old to have fun with the books you read. It’s a breathless page-turner (I finished it in less than twenty-four hours), but you shouldn’t think that this is reviewer code for ‘bad’. On the contrary, it’s both well written and based on some detailed research.

Gallagher’s knowledge of his period is impressive, and even dedicated Victorianists will find his details ringing true. There are great cameos from historical figures like Bram Stoker (in his guise as Henry Irving’s theatre manager) and Aleister Crowley, and there was even a real Victorian prize-fighter named Tom Sayers – though he died twenty years too early to be arrested for murder in the late 1880s. The many departures Gallagher makes from the facts of his material are all knowingly tongue-in-cheek. He’s making a total mess of reality (this is a world where Pinkertons detectives can exist alongside deathless forces of evil, after all), but the improbability of it is entirely conscious, and the result is wonderful, a homage rather than a nonsense.

Now, fair warning: all readers of this book must have both an imagination (to buy the plot) and a willingness to suspend disbelief (to ignore the holes in said set-up). The ancient evil is evil because… er… it is, and it doles out more evil because of… evil reasons that are given no additional explanation. Any particularly logical person may feel slight pain at this, and anyone who likes their murder without a hint of the supernatural will find The Kingdom of Bones going to places where they don’t want to follow. But if you have both of those things, and this does sound like your kind of book – well, you’re going to absolutely love it.

Gallagher’s ticked all the required boxes so well that I found myself not minding about the slightly slower and less purposeful second half, or that strangely nebulous ancient evil. Unashamedly enjoyable, gloriously tawdry and cracking good fun, this is a gem of pastiche late-Victorian pulp fiction.

Looking for more historical crime escapades? Try The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Dime Museum Murders by Daniel Stashower or The Longest Fight by Emily Bullock.

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Buy The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher at


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