R. Michael Phillips brings us Along Came a Fifer, Rook, Rhyme & Sinker, and Passage of Crime. The first three books in hopefully a long series, featuring Ernie Bisquets and The East London Adventurers’ Club.
Aristotle’s Poetics identifies six parts of a good story: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. In this series, R. Michael Phillips does a splendid job of all six, and particularly shines with Character and Spectacle.
Book One – Along Came a Fifer . . .
Our central character, Ernie Bisquets, is recently released from prison. As he rides a bus toward his new life, the author skillfully blends the past and present to provide necessary exposition, all the while continuing the forward motion of the story.
As Ernie settles into his surprising new life, we are introduced to a household of characters, each with their own story and their own goals and conflicts, yet never overshadowing the central character’s own journey to redemption. Nigel and Lily are a delight to observe and Mr. Patterson is the authority that binds them together. Mrs. Chapman, the housekeeper, is so charmingly dimensional that I really wish I could meet her. Keep an eye out for her own little surprise to appear.
Book 2 – Rook, Rhyme & Sinker.
Here we learn more of Inspector Flannel and his beef with Bisquets. (couldn’t resist)
Ivory chessmen, bodies in the Canal, and fabulous redirection will take you on a ride through the grey rain, an appreciation for antiquities, amusing chapter titles, and more scrumptious dinners prepared by Mrs. Chapman. Nigel and Lily’s story grows, and somehow the author keeps all the sneaky characters nicely described so you know who is who. Or do you? I particularly enjoyed the scene with Slippery where he, after nabbing someone’s umbrella, walks away from Ernie, and out into the rain. Ernie then sees the umbrella coming back, but sheltering three bemused ladies instead. This comic moment skillfully revealed more of Slippery’s character with a hats off to their old tricks.
Book 3 – Passage of Crime
The newest in the series plops us right in the middle of Inspector Flannel’s world of dark alleys and even darker criminals — a city with a “monochromatic haze, dotted here and there with the deep reds of the familiar London buses.” We learn of Flannel’s history with Lord Raventhorn, and with the author’s skillful use of atmosphere, we are soon immersed in the headlines of the “Brick Lane Slasher,” reminiscent of those Whitechapel Murders.
Ernie’s world and Flannel’s are smoothly brought together as Ernie, while observing a woman’s dangling purse (will he revert to his old ways?), catches the eye of Inspector Flannel. Ernie is pulled in to the investigation, but this time without the help of Patterson.
Like the prop master of a fine theatrical performance, the author brings surrounding objects into play to further reveal character. Ernie pushes a box of tissue toward a tearful woman, Nigel instinctively wraps a blanket around Lily, Inspector Flannel comforts the shoulders of a trembling man, and Raventhorn brushes at the new crease in his trousers, telling us he is all appearance and to look no further. Small moments, but necessary strokes of color to the canvas.
Added to this portrait of characters is one shadowy corner after another, where surprises leap out, secrets hide and taunt you, and when you think you’ve come out of the thick, wet fog, another twist, another revelation, and then a resolution to clean things up into a tidy package.
Through these three stories, the author tells us not to ‘…dismiss the idea of this placid lake as a theater for the evil that lurks within a malevolent heart.” And “[e]motional speculation is to deductive reasoning what weeds are to a garden – at first sight they appear to belong, but eventually they obscure that which one hopes will come into bud.” People are not who they seem to be, whether using a disguise, changing their names, or starting over. The author nudges us to look a little closer, a little deeper, to discover the inhumanity under a clean surface, or, to reveal the humanity within. These three books are a must read, a carefully brushed painting, and a delight to remember as we come back to our own bright, sunny room.