Where will you find the Devil’s Waiting Room and the Antechambers of Hell? In Newgate Prison just after the Napoleanic Wars. Bernard Cornwell takes his readers on a tour through the eyes of Sir Henry Forrest, banker and alderman of the City of London, and through the eyes of Lt. Rider Sandman, former British soldier back from the wars and a member of the higher social order who is now down on his luck and out of pocket.
The story opens with the good citizens of London in a holiday mood. The streets are crowded and windows that overlook Old Bailey are rented for tidy sums. Four felons are scheduled for the scaffold, one of them a young girl accused of stealing her mistress’s necklace. She screams her innocence and fear as she is trussed and manhandled by the executioner. Her pleas fall on deaf ears as the Keeper and other officials discuss the highly acclaimed and traditional breakfast to be served when the festivities are over.
One “guest” who waits his turn to do the “Morris Dance”, or the “Hempen Measure”, is a boy, an apprentice artist whose mother has appealed to the queen. His date with the rope is scheduled for the following week, and Rider Sandman has been commissioned to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder of which he is accused.
As Rider’s investigations take him from the cold and filth of Newgate to the vast estates and secret orders of the rich and titled, the reader gets a firsthand look at early English justice, and English society, from the lowest to the highest: from the coarse prison turnkey to callous officials; from a people so inured to pain, death, and suffering, that executions are deemed a jolly family outing, to the aloof and privileged gentry who could care less; from the horrors of an institution so dehumanized that the bodies of felons are buried beneath a cobblestone corridor, the shallow pits filled with lime to hasten decomposition, to the halls of art, and grace, and grandeur.
Gallows Thief gives the reader a “firsthand” view of the social injustice of the times. A Napoleanic-era sleuth and a mystery is a bit of a departure from Cornwell’s usual war and battlefield writings, but, as usual, his historical acumen is impeccable. From his “Historical Notes” at the back of the book (a must read), he says: “There was, indeed, an occasional investigator appointed to inquire into the circumstances of capital cases,” and that, “This was one of the busiest periods [of history] for the gallows of England and Wales.”