Book Review: The Hangman’s Secret by Laura Joh Rowland
By Janet WebbJanuary 30, 2019
The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Rowland’s Victorian Mystery series.
The Hangman’s Secret is a brutal assault on the senses. Photographer Sarah Bain is no stranger to the London underworld, nor are her associates, Lord Hugh Staunton, and Mick O’Reilly. Sarah works exclusively for powerful newspaper baron Sir Gerald Mariner. She photographs crime scenes, with charming aristocrat Lord Hugh at her side to help her get into crime scenes, while 14-year-old Mick O’Reilly darts into forbidden nooks and crannies.
London in 1890 is a fetid metropolis. The air, the streets, the every-day conditions of most Londoners, is appalling. Everything Sarah touches in her investigations is slimy and filthy. She rushes through “smoky fog” on her way to Warbrick’s pub, The Ropemaker’s Daughter, while “layers of cold grime coats her face, turning her tongue black.
The stomach-gutting gore of The Hangman’s Secret is excruciating. Nothing can prepare Sarah for the sight and smell of the dead hangman, Harry Warbrick, the most infamous executioner in England.
When I step into the dim passage, the smell of blood and ordure hits me like the foul wind from a slaughterhouse. A wave of nausea churns sour bile up from my stomach. I drop my camera case at the threshold and clap my hand over my nose and mouth—too late to keep out the taste of iron and salt, meat and feces … In the middle lies the large, crumpled, bloodstained body of a man dressed in a white shirt, black trousers, and black shoes. Instead of a head, he has only a ragged, gory stump.
I’ve seen the corpses of four of Jack the Ripper’s victims, who were brutally stabbed and mutilated. This is just as terrible. I’m glad it’s so cold in here; otherwise, the smell would be even worse.
Mick, standing near me, says, “The bloke was hanged!” His voice is shrill with horror and excitement.
Warbrick was a garrulous, boastful man, quick to share the secrets of his blood-soaked career with a public hungry for unpleasant details. Was he killed to stop his tongue from wagging? What makes the investigation so difficult is two-fold. First, Sir Gerald Wariner, always looking to increase circulation of his tabloid, the Daily World, pits his journalists against the cops. The public laps it up: “who can solve Warbrick’s murder first?” The contest makes life difficult for Sarah Bain because she loves Police Constable Barrett, a copper assigned to the case. Sarah’s independence—her propensity to charge ahead in the face of personal danger—is a bone of contention between them. Nevertheless, Sarah is eager to solve this new crime, it’s in her nature to be attracted to danger. She admits to herself, “Fear makes me feel alive.” Sarah’s inability to share clues with Barrett causes more stress between them.
Was he killed to stop his tongue from wagging?
Secondly, the Official Secrets Act prevents witnesses to hangings from ever speaking about them. Sarah suspects one of the witnesses to a past Warbrick hanging perpetrated the crime. Could his murder be connected to the most notorious criminal he ever executed—Amelia Carlisle, the “Baby-Butcher,” who murdered hundreds of infants placed in her care? How can Sarah and her intrepid colleagues maneuver around the Official Secrets Act to solve the mystery?
Their inquiries take Sarah and Lord Hugh to notorious Newgate Prison, where Carlisle was hung. The screams and rumbles of the prisoners unnerve them. Not even a chapel service is immune. During the singing of a hymn, “the men clown, singing the next lines in exaggerated falsetto or bass.” A warden shuts down the pandemonium, saying, “It’s back to the cells for you rabble.”
Perhaps the only respite for Sarah and her partners is the ministrations of Fitzmorris, Lord Hugh’s faithful valet, the de facto house manager of their little ménage, who restores their spirits when they feel helpless. Sarah’s vivid imagination often leaves her feeling dispirited.
These ideas are like a chest of serpents that I don’t want to open.
Fitzmorris brings cups of steaming cocoa on a tray. I sip mine, and the sweet, milky chocolate soothes my spirits.
The Hangman’s Secret is a challenging, authentically graphic historical mystery that brings readers into a raw, dog-eat-dog world but one that is not all bleak. Sarah Bain is an intrepid photographer and a dogged investigator but she’s also a loyal friend, an exemplary employee, and a woman who wants to be loved. New York City is not the only city that never sleeps—Sarah Bain’s 1890’s London is rife with secrets and stories to be told.