Gallows Thief, by Bernard Cornwell

Rider Sandman is an impoverished soldier, back home and unemployed after fighting for his country at Waterloo, and too proud to use his cricketing talents to play in crooked games. While he's wondering what kind of work he might be able to find, he's offered a job by the Home Office: a criminal has been sentenced to hang for murder, and a petition has been raised to save him, which requires that an investigation be made to confirm the murderer's guilt. The Home Office regards this as a formality, but as Sandman digs into the story, it becomes clear that there's something distinctly wrong with the conviction.

This was a really great read. Partly because it was a good yarn, but more as a result of the historical detail, which was convincing and interesting, and made to feel relevant without being at all laboured. This included background on the campaign in France, 19th century cricket, and the "flash" dialect employed by the criminal fraternity. And the overall sense of a society which has such a rigid social structure - in fact it was more like two separate societies living in the same country - was very well done. I think in retrospect that the plot might have had a couple of holes in it, but the story moved on at such a pace that this didn't matter.

The book opens with an account of a hanging, and the atmosphere was so convincingly described that although the details weren't especially gruesome, it was still fairly shocking, and one of the most memorable sections in the book. The scaffold scene at the end of the book echoes that in the prologue, and is consequently all the more effective in building up the tension.

I don't believe there are any more books about Sandman, but I'd definitely read them if there were. And I hope to read more by Bernard Cornwell.

Completed : 10-Feb-2005 (audiobook)

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