Gallows Thief


Bernard Cornwell


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 29, 2011

bought this book at a library booksale because it had Bernard Cornwell's name on it - I have read a few of his books, and every one has been a good read. Gallow's Thief is another successful entry from Cornwell's pen.

Unlike most of Cornwell's books, Gallow's Thief is a stand alone history-mystery novel. It is set in Regency-era London. Cornwell excels in bringing to life the rough justice suffered by the poor - this novel opens with a dramatic description of a hanging at Newgate Prison, with a swarming crowd gathered to witness the last minutes of four condemned wretches. Cornwell walks us step by step through the execution, describing in detail the terrified prisoners, the matter-of-fact attitude of the jailers, and the tension in the official witnesses. I thought it was a vivid opening scene for the book - the horror of a public execution, the blood thirst of the mob, and doubt that any "justice" was meted out by the hangings.

After the hanging, we are introduced to Captain Rider Sandman, an ex-soldier who fought for the British at Waterloo. Sandman is unemployed and living in a "flash" inn, (Flash is a slang vocabulary employed by pick-pockets, highwaymen, and ne'er-do-wells, Cornwell evidently enjoyed his researches of the slang - the dialogue makes liberal use of flash phrases.) Sandman is hired to investigate claims of innocence by a painter named Charles Corday, who is imprisoned in Newgate for raping and murdering a Countess. The authorities expect that Sandman will make a cursory interview, conclude that Corday is indeed guilty, and the matter will be closed. Corday is sentenced to hang in seven days. Naturally, Sandman's interview with Corday leads him to the opposite conclusion - Sandman decides that the artist is probably innocent. Sandman finds he has seven days to find the true culprit.

In a world without any forensic science, and no concept of a "detective", Sandman's role involves simply locating witnesses and asking them questions. The mystery/detecting part of the novel was rather straightforward. Sandman interviews a few witnesses (when he can find them - the crucial maid who can verify Charles Cordays claims seems to have disappeared) and he has several adventures. The plot isn't the best part of the novel, instead, what I liked best is the well drawn set of characters that Cornwell introduces to us that make this a worthwhile read. Sandman, the barmaid Sally, Sergeant Berrigan, Sandman's beautiful ex-fiancee Eleanor, the his eccentric friend - the pipe smoking Reverend Lord Alexander Pleydell - Cornwell has drawn a unique personality for each one of these characters. It is easy to get involved in this novel because these are people you care about.

Besides the characters, I also liked Cornwell's descriptions of Regency England. Every scene sounds authentic, every detail rings true. We learn about English plays, carriages, language, even the rope used to hang the criminals - Cornwell shows everything to us without making it read like drab research. We learn that citizens hid fishhooks in their pockets to foil the pickpockets, and that thieves would slash the luggage off of the back of moving carriages. His description of Newgate prison and the justice system is especially good. I finished this book in two days, I thought it was enjoyable all the way through. I do wish the book didn't end so quickly though, it seemed to me that the resolution was abrupt. Certainly this was a good book though.