As a Bow Street Runner, a member of London’s foot patrol in Regency England, McGee’s Matthew Hawkwood is comfortable navigating most levels of society. A former soldier at ease with the upper class and equally able to mingle among the riffraff of Smithfield, Hawkwood is assigned by his superior to investigate two crimes: the graveyard desecration of a man’s lifeless body and the gruesome murder of a visitor by an inmate of Bedlam. He soon discovers that the disparate crimes may be bizarrely connected, though the links are difficult to identify.
The graveside scene is not totally unexpected. Resurrectionists (those who steal dead bodies from graves) make excellent profits by regularly delivering fresh corpses to medical schools for research. But the murder at the insane asylum has more disturbing implications. The patient, a once-famous surgeon, has escaped the asylum wearing the face of the minister who came to visit him for a weekly chess game. Matthew tracks the escapee, Colonel Titus Hyde, to the church of his victim, where Hyde apparently falls to his death as the structure is consumed by flames. The authorities have not puzzled out the reason for the macabre events in the graveyard or at Bedlam before a series of murders and body thefts lead Hawkwood to reexamine Hyde’s fiery demise.
Glen Moy, using the pseudonym of James McGee, builds his tale around authentic historical details of Regency-era London and the activities of thriving gangs of resurrectionists who defend their territory with a brutality common to those who trade on the dark side of humanity, profiting from death and a maniacal plot by a surgeon who pays those who do his bidding handsomely. Hawkwood, who easily measures up as a skillful, witty protagonist, uses his knowledge of the streets and its occupants to unravel a thriving industry. His investigation leads from the muck-encrusted alleys of Smithfield to the highest echelons of government.
Steeped in the macabre practices of the medical community as it existed at the time, surgeries are unsophisticated, the secrets of human anatomy still a mystery to practitioners. That Hyde’s scheme finds expression in London’s crime-riddled underbelly is not surprising given the circumstances and his contacts among the powerful (and curious), albeit steeped in mystery and the near-hysterical fears of those distrustful of medical science. Bedlam is emblematic of the ignorance surrounding mental illness and its treatment, Hyde patiently preparing until escape is possible: “Bethlem is a midden; it’s where London discharges its waste matter.”
There is plenty of action in this period thriller, from the crumbling walls of Bedlam to the Smithfield stews, where prostitutes fall victim to predators and perverts, where human life remains a viable commodity. Hawkwood is a formidable adversary, both for the wily criminal protecting his turf and the sly politician given to self-protective maneuvers. Filled with adventure and no shortage of brutality, the bloody Smithfield streets are a far cry from the luxurious offices of the ruling class, the intentions of criminals cloaked in velvet but just as heinous.