Friday, April 1, 2011

Gallows Thief

Gallows Thief
© 2002 Bernard Cornwell
297 pages

It's the year 1817, and the conflict between England and Napoleon which dominated the minds of Europe for nearly two decades is finally over -- and yet, still haunting those who survived it. Captain Rider Sandman returned home from fighting in Spain and at Waterloo to find that his father had driven the family into debt and shot himself. Though of 'noble' lineage, Sandman is now penniless and without prospects, save his skill at cricket. His skill at "batting" may keep him from starving, but it won't be enough to marry his longtime love. Thus, when Sandman is asked by the Home Minister to investigate and confirm the guilt of a man who will soon be executed for the murder of a noble, he accepts the generous fee offered and sets about the task of obtaining a confession.

Naturally, it's not that simple. As soon as Sandman questions the man, he realizes the account of his guilt can't be true. Fortunately for the accused -- a painter who had the bad luck to leave an aristocratic lady's home shortly before her rape and murder -- Sandman is a firm believer in Justice.  England means something to him: he didn't help defeat Napoleon just to come home to a land where the innocent are hanged.  As his investigation continues, Sandman stumbles upon a secret society of artistocrats who will murder just to prove they can get away with it; if Sandman doesn't leave things be, he may become their next victim.  Sandman must race against time with multiple lives hanging on the balance, and the painfully suspenseful ending will keep readers on the edges of their seats until the final page.

Given that I'm chiefly familar with Cornwell's military work, this diversion into detective work came as a pleasant surprise. The writing and characterization are up to Cornwell's usual standards, and to them he adds  a barrage of period slang ("flash") and a generous dollop of cricket discussion. This last would have had me utterly confused were I not familiar with some cricket terms (courtesy of a Regency take on "Who's on First?" which uses terms like 'bowler' and 'wicket-keeper' for pitcher and catcher).  Both bring the post-Napoleonic setting more to life, though for some reason I suspect Cornwell was amused to be able to use either. I for one would have been interested in seeing a Rider Sandman series of mysteries -- like most of Cornwell's protagonists, Sandman is strong, wily, courageous, and 'a good man' --  but it's been  over eight years since Gallows Thief first saw the light of day.

Gallows is an fun,  tense mystery novel set against the grim backdrop of public executions: those interested in both historical fiction and detective stories should find it especially appealing.


  • the Richard Sharpe novels, the main character of which may have been mentioned here. I am not sure, but Sandman refers to a certain green-jacketed rifleman with remarkable shooting prowess. 


  1. I enjoyed that too. It was a nice change of pace from his Sharpe novels.

  2. Sounds like a great story...not my kind of read though. I'll wait for the movie. ;)


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