Review published on August 3, 2012. Reviewed by John Redfearn
The role of a poorhouse Visitor was to sort the deserving from the undeserving poor. The beneficent Visitor would give the deserving a chit for a night or two’s lodging or a few day’s food. The morally upright Visitor would leave the undeserving with, at best, a sermon about the evils of drink, prostitution or tobacco and an admonition to get a job and mend their ways.
It’s obvious then that when the saintly Reverend Charles Howard was murdered in his own church the culprit could only be one of those rejected undeserving poor. Probably the one seen walking towards the church earlier that same day. A tramp on the scene at the same time as a murder and with likely motive fits the bill nicely. But how do you identify a tramp? They all wear filthy worn-out old clothes, they all smell, they’re all hungry, they’ll all steal anything not nailed down and they’re all like policemen, no-one sees the person, just the uniform.
Assisted by a trio of harmless confidence tricksters Murdoch goes hunting. The killer foolishly purloined the Saintly Charles Howard’s pocket-watch and boots. Find the tramp with them and he’d have found the culprit. Where do you go to find a boot-thieving tramp? Go to the place where tramps spend the night, the poorhouse, the workhouse where those unfortunate enough not to gain residence might at least gain a night or two under cover and a hot meal or two. What better place to check out their footwear? The one where the unfortunate victim donated his time as a Visitor.
The memorable part of Vices, filling the mid-section of the book, is Murdoch’s ‘One day in the life of a Vagrant,’ his day as an undercover cop in the workhouse. At five in the evening he’s inspected for worthiness, searched for demon-drink, tobacco or too much money and allowed in. He’s taken for a bath while his clothes are fumigated to kill the vermin but not washed to kill the smell, and then sent to bed in the dormitory with all the other tramps. Its six in the evening. There will be food, but for breakfast, not dinner. Those who donated their hard-won cash for the benefit of the poor wanted value for money as well as the warm glow of their benevolence. Poorhouses were strict with their guests.
Amid the murder and seediness Murdoch’s private life continues to get ever more complex: Doctor Ogden has returned, Enid has departed for Wales, Amy Slade has rented the Kitchen’s spare room and helpfully irons Murdoch’s back, Olivia helps him understand the societal benefits of plunging and, right at the end of the story, Murdoch makes a proposal of marriage.
An Agent of Deceit, by Chris Morgan Jones
An extract from Playing Dead, by Julia Heaberlin
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