The Salisbury Manuscript
By Philip Gooden
Constable, London, 2008
It is 1873 and Tom Ansell, a young lawyer at Messrs. Scott, Lye and Mackenzie, has been sent from London to foggy Salisbury to visit one of the firm's clients, Canon Felix Slater. Slater has in his possession a rather explicit memoir written by his late father, George Slater, who knew the likes of Byron and Shelley and got up to all sorts of racy shenanigans. The Canon cannot bring himself to destroy his father's manuscript, despite being disgusted by its 'unrespectable and rackety' contents, and wants it locked away in the law firm's vault until his own death. Unfortunately, before the memoir can be taken into safe custody, the clergyman is brutally murdered in his own study at Venn House, in Cathedral Close. The memoir is nowhere to be found and Tom, having been discovered in the vicinity of Slater's body with bloodied hands, finds himself locked up in Fisherton Gaol temporarily as prime suspect for the clergyman's sudden demise.
Upon his release, Tom turns amateur sleuth and, with the help of his fiancé Helen, a would-be writer of sensation novels who is always on the lookout for exciting new material, sets about uncovering the identity of Slater's true killer.
But who would want to kill the devout clergyman? There are a number of characters to choose from: his rather mysterious half-Italian wife, Amelia, who has apparently imagined herself a widow many times; his self-indulgent brother, Percy, who has lived a life as dissolute as his father; or how about Henry Cathcart, local store owner and leading citizen of the town, who appears besotted with Amelia and whose blood-speckled handkerchief was discovered in the vicinity of Canon Slater's corpse.
The mystery of Canon Slater's death is intertwined with other odd goings on; a local tomb-robbing sexton has disappeared without a trace and there has recently been a spate of burglaries in the vicinity (by a thief who seems partial to jelly moulds).
The story did take a little time to get warmed up, but once Canon Slater had been done away with it really got going, especially once Helen Scott arrived from London to be at Tom's side. The characters are all very well rounded, and the atmosphere of foggy Victorian Salisbury is conjured up wonderfully. I rather liked Tom's sarcastic sense of humour and Helen's determined and adventurous spirit, and Inspector Foster was an entertaining fellow too. I'm giving this enjoyable book four gold stars, and I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Durham Deception.