In 1841 London, Captain William Avery and Jeremiah Blake reunite after a harrowing assignment in India. Blake had tolerated the naïve enthusiasm of his younger counterpart as they attempted to rescue a renowned literary figure from harm on that tumultuous continent; now Avery hopes his curmudgeonly partner will hold him in higher regard as they begin another joint adventure. At the request of Theophilis Collinson, the man who served as the head of the East India Company’s Secret Department in their former assignment in India, the pair is sent into another “heart of darkness”: London’s seething underbelly of crime and poverty. The assignment begins dramatically with the gruesome murder of a publisher on the infamous Drury Lane, the victim’s body defiled and shockingly displayed, his widow and children shivering in fear above the shop.
A second murder follows, that body also specifically defiled, yet another publisher on Drury Lane, neither case rigorously pursued by the local authorities. Avery and Blake are expected to discreetly investigate the two murders
and are quickly immersed in the seedy world of the city’s gutter press, where numerous printers make their living by pandering to the lowest tastes, a lucrative market for pornography and smut. In Victorian England, such unsavory enterprises are relegated to the winding streets and alleys of commercial enterprise, where poverty and opportunity coexist on the most basic level, far from the avenues where the wealthy conduct their affairs. On the cusp of change, the city is roiling with opportunities for the entrepreneur, small presses that once revolutionized society being replaced by efficient steam-powered behemoths for a modern age. On Drury Street, however, it’s business as usual, street vendors hawking their wares to survive one day to greet another in the same meager circumstances, those aware of the murders turning away, reluctant to engage in affairs not their business.
Blake’s temperament has not improved in the intervening years, as prone as ever to curt instructions to Avery, garbed in clothing that allows the freedom to wander the streets unobserved in unfriendly environs while Avery blunders along, getting himself noticed. They intrude into the private affairs of men who prefer secrecy, danger following close behind.
They seek out Viscount Allington, a peer who works tirelessly on behalf of underprivileged young women, and his sister, Lady Alice. Besides the criminals, whores, pornographers, and missionaries found on Drury Lane, the pubs are filled with arguments, political fervor adding another layer of uncertainty to the streets, particularly the efforts of the Chartists, who seek the right to vote for everyone. Following the convoluted path from one brutal murder to another--then a third--Avery and Blake begin to suspect political involvement, though the connections remain elusive. They plunge forward, oblivious to threat, alienating more adversaries along the way, Blake instinctively pushing through the facile lies as they stalk the dark streets of the city’s most dangerous areas.
While Avery has left a pregnant wife at home (after a reluctant, albeit practical marriage), happy for an excuse to join Blake in London, his enthusiasm is hardly reciprocated. A little worse for wear since their last encounter, Blake continues to keep his own counsel, though harboring some small appreciation for his young partner’s newly acquired instincts, the two men complete opposites. Much of Carter’s tale takes on its particular flavor from this odd pairing. The bizarre murders lead eventually to the identity of the killer and his motives in an unexpected revelation that shines a bright light on the desperate straits of those at the lowest rung of poverty, illumination quickly extinguished as expedience and expectations fill the vacuum. While it is hard to imagine Carter creating as compelling a tale as
The Strangler Vine on London soil, The Infidel Stain (A Blake and Avery Novel) retains the historical detail and dramatic urgency
of the previous novel. No doubt this “odd couple” will return for another engagement.