The Infidel Stain, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 432 pages, release date 29 March, 2016
One of the real joys of reading is discovering characters you love and having the opportunity to get to know them over time as new books featuring them come out. This is very much the case with Jeremiah Blake and William Avery, who were introduced to readers by M. J. Carter in last year’s The Strangler Vine.
Blake and Avery are one of those odd couples who can flourish in the world of detective fiction. When readers first met them, they were based in India. Blake was a British agent gone rogue, who had long since abandoned faith in the British cause in India. Avery was a young officer, still believing in the British cause, but increasingly disappointed with the lack of opportunities for advancement—and beginning to question much of the British story about the nation’s role in India.
The Infidel Stain takes place in 1841, three years after The Strangler Vine. Blake and Avery have returned to Britain, but fallen out of touch. Blake lives in a run-down apartment in an immigrant-rich neighborhood in London and eats at a kitchen for impoverished sailors returned from India. Avery is living a prosperous, if unengaging, life in the countryside. The two are reunited to investigate a series of murders of London printers. The police have shown little interest in the cases, but a wealthy philanthropist wants to see justice pursued and is willing to pay Blake and Avery to do the pursuing.
Like The Strangler Vine, The Infidel Stain offers a detailed portrait of a fascinating historical moment. Britain faces unrest brought on by the Chartist movement, a campaign to grant the vote to all men, regardless of property-holding status. The Chartists, while viewed as threats to the social order, are seen as sell-outs by the previous generation’s radicals, who sought the vote for women as well as men, and who questioned many assumptions about both faith and morality.
I admit to some disappointment at finding Blake and Avery out of India. I’d been looking forward to more of the portrait of colonialism that their adventures revealed, but they’re every bit as fascinating in London as they were while in India. The Infidel Stain is the kind of “meaty” mystery that offers far more than a puzzle at its center. Readers see life in 1840s Britain as it was lived by members of various social strata. While many characters operate with good intentions, real good is harder to define. The challenges—political, financial, moral—posed by London’s poor can’t be solved the way a particular set of crimes can be.
I’m eagerly waiting now for my next meeting with Blake and Avery, both because I want to spend time in their company and because I want to know more about the London in which they operate.
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