Today, we have an excerpt from William Sutton‘s second Victorian crime novel, Lawless and the Flowers of Sin. Recently published by Titan Books, it’s the sequel to Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square.
Here’s the synopsis:
It is 1863, and as a reluctant Inspector of Vice, Campbell Lawless undertakes a reckoning of London’s houses of ill repute, a shadowy netherworld of frayed glamour and double standards, mesmerising and unspeakable by turns.
From the erotic booksellers of Holywell Street to the alleys of Haymarket, he discovers backstreet cast-offs and casualties of the society bordellos, and becomes fascinated by a musician who has established a foundation for fallen women. But his inquiries draw the attention of powerful men, who can be merciless in defending their reputations. Lawless must unlock the heart of a clandestine network, before he too is silenced…
Read on for the excerpt…
Lawless receives his task from the Scotland Yard Commissioner: a census of sin.
“I was just speaking about you, Watchman.” Sir Richard cut me off. He examined his watch, with a sidelong glance at me, and shook it in irritation. “And your manifold talents.”
I was known as Watchman around Scotland Yard, as I’d spent my youth apprenticed to my watchmaker father; they were glad to abuse me for free repairs. I took his watch with a sigh. “Why does that fill me with foreboding, sir?”
“Nonsense.” Payne laughed. I was waiting for him to condemn Molly’s troupe: the disquieting humour, costumes, and handicaps. “Your soirée has raised a thousand pounds and a deal of publicity for Felix’s charitable endeavour. Well done, young man… The Phoenix Foundation, indeed.” He tugged at his moustaches. “The thing is, Watchman, we all need good news.”
“The police force. The government. Damn it, the whole country needs a boost. And you’re the man to give it to us.”
I gazed at him impassively.
“Don’t be like that, you impenetrable Scot.” He waved me toward the sandstone shelf that ran along the cloister’s inner wall. “Sit down, for God’s sake.”
I perched on the cold stone. Determined to hide my anticipation, I picked open the casing of his watch with my old pocket-knife. I examined it in the dim light. Cogs and springs I could handle; the reverie soothed my craftsman’s soul. Sir Richard’s hyperbole gave me the shivers. It was the way I’d been treated, perhaps. You give your all and are punished for it. Unjust? Certainly. Typical? Perhaps: we’re all cogs in a machine that none of us understand. Yet Sir Richard knew the dangers I had undergone, the indignities I’d suffered. I was relying on him. I needed to be reinstated at the heart of the mechanism.
“Look, Watchman, you’re a good sort. The charity’s bigwigs are grateful as all hell to you. You mustn’t get in a tizzy when they lap up the plaudits: Mauve, and Brodie, and Felix himself, though he’s a genial soul.” Gabriel Mauve was our political contact, a cabinet minister, J.W. Brodie a newspaper tycoon, and Felix the Quarterhouse Brother who’d dreamt up the whole shebang. I’d met none of them during my efforts; I knew my place. Sir Richard began pacing up and down. He was ill at ease. “Our battlegrounds are no longer in China or Russia, nor the mills of Lanark and Preston. The war this great nation is fighting today is in our souls, indeed our bodies—well, you know what I mean, Watchman. Everybody knows. You’ve only to stroll the Haymarket of an evening, or any train terminus. Charitable efforts, like this, are all very well. But I’ve called for a Commons Enquiry. And you, Lawless, are our man.”
I stared at him.
“To persuade a Commons Select Committee to act, I’ll need a brand-new survey.” Sir Richard was inspired. A rousing speech, almost as if he intended to stand for parliament. “We’ll count every house of ill repute. Itemise every last working woman. On the streets. In bordellos. Everywhere. A census of sin.”
Was this the commission I had dreamed of? I shivered involuntarily.
“None of your cynicism, Watchman.”
He gave me a smile that made my heart sink, for I saw a trace of pity behind it. “Much has been done since ’57 and the last appraisal. You may take great satisfaction in quantifying exactly how immorality has declined.”
“Declined? Sir, are you joking?”
“So many good works. Cholera. Poverty. Pleasure gardens closed, slum alleys patrolled. Law and order bolstered and extended into the darkest corners.”
Yet he always complained how government constrained his police finances.
“All improving the poor’s plight, you see. Removing temptations from women’s paths. Warning gentlemen of the ills caused by lapses moral and sexual.”
“This commission is crucial to the government’s plans. I wouldn’t trust it to anybody else.”
A backhanded sort of a compliment. Perhaps he really was going into politics. “Jimmy Darlington’s our man for vice and immorality, sir. I wouldn’t dare tread on his capable toes.”
“Darlington’s been transferred. He’s to shut down the filthy bookshops, but he’ll show you around the night houses.”
“Shut the bookshops?” I had sent a couple of these publishers down the previous year—pornographers, they were calling them now—but they popped up in new premises the moment they were released. I looked at Sir Richard more closely. There was something he was not telling me. “Some job Darlington will have. Is this shake-up coming from on high, sir?”
“I’ll tell you, Lawless, but you mustn’t let on to anyone.” He lowered his tone. “A certain politician has a particular friend. They had a tiff. She’s vanished. He’s asked me to find her.”
“You want me to find some politician’s missing friend?”
“Lawless, Lawless, I say,” he beseeched me. It was not like Sir Richard to beseech anyone. “Don’t get on your bloody high horse.” Payne put his hand to his brow. “Not any old politician. The Prime Minister.”