Old Scores by Will Thomas is the ninth book in the Barker & Llewelyn series.
The ninth Barker & Llewellyn mystery novel starts out quietly enough. Enquiry Agent Cyrus Barker receives a delegation from Japan at his private residence. The newcomers are curious to see the only authentic Japanese garden in 1890s England. Barker’s right-hand man (and our narrator), Thomas Llewellyn, is curious to see these foreigners but gains more than he bargained for when he correctly interprets Barker's carefully hidden surprise at the composition of their entourage as a hint at darker dealings afoot.
Later that evening, finding Barker unexpectedly absent, Llewellyn goes looking for him. Outside the building where the Japanese have temporarily set up their proto-embassy, he encounters a commotion and is swiftly arrested in conjunction with the murder of Ambassador Toda. Barker had been apprehended earlier as the prime suspect, as he'd been found staring up at the ambassador’s window with a gun in his hand immediately after the assassination. But with no apparent motive, the Special Branch has to let him go, especially after Barker's lawyer intervenes.
Unimpressed by the Special Branch’s handling of the matter, the Japanese General Mononobe—who has assumed the mantle of acting ambassador—hires Barker to find the real killer. As Barker & Llewellyn investigate, they uncover diplomatic intrigue and shocking connections to London’s own underworld as they come closer and closer to a cunning killer whose past is intertwined with Barker's own.
The internecine strife on display is only one highlight of a book brimming with gorgeous—and accurate—historical detail. Will Thomas knows his history well enough to draw cheekily humorous parallels between international conflicts of all stripes, as in this conversation between Llewellyn—himself a Welshman—and Ho, one of the most important figures in the Limehouse neighborhood, home of the Chinese diaspora in London and still a significant political influence on the motherland:
“Don't think the [Japanese are] eager to meet with us, either. Too much has occurred between us.”
“I'm sure,” I said, “the blame must be on the Japanese shoulders.”
“Naturally,” Ho answered. “We have been gracious to them for decades, even forbearing. What have they done in return? They have housed revolutionaries scheming to end the Qing dynasty, and tried to decide how best to dissect my country's carcass. I don't like them establishing an embassy in London. They're up to no good, mark my words.”
I thought it more likely to be the result of native prejudice, but it is not likely one can convince a person through reason, after a lifetime of enmity. I did not see much difference between the two countries, but I supposed it was my own ignorance that was responsible for that. I felt the same suspicions about the English, of course, but that was their fault, not mine.
And, of course, one can hardly review a Barker & Llewellyn novel without commenting on the irrepressible voice of our narrator. Old Scores revels in Llewellyn’s dry wit, especially in the face of new experiences. When Ho is persuaded to host a dinner for the Japanese delegation and their escorts, Llewellyn finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to try the infamous fugu fish for the first time. The unskilled preparation of fugu results in death by a poison more lethal than cyanide; as such, it is considered a delicacy by those who like to gamble with their lives at the dinner table. Llewellyn is not one of these people, but Barker insists he partakes in order to not slight his fellow dinner guests, much less an already grumpy host.
It seemed like only seconds until the tray was presented to us. Barker helped himself to a large helping. I took two slices. Then Barker put half of his on my plate. No one ever said he wasn't cunning.
I put the first piece in my mouth. The fact that I had already made a will was a small comfort. Twenty-six was not a bad age at which to die. I would look better in the coffin than most, like I had just fallen into a quiet sleep, once the look of horror had been expunged from my face.
My death would have served the Guv right. I had been shot at, stabbed, beaten, and nearly hung. It would be ironic if I died from a sliver of fish.
Needless to say, I lived.
Loyal readers of the Barker & Llewellyn books will know that Barker doesn’t like to talk about the time he spent living in Japan years previously, and Old Scores finally explains why. It’s a moving tale with a satisfying ending seen through the eyes of a young man utterly unfamiliar with Japanese culture but who is not at all xenophobic (despite his continual ribbing of the English). It also sets up intriguing possibilities for the future of Llewellyn himself, his employer, and Barker’s former ward, Bok Fu Ying, whose role in the proceedings is both complicated and memorable. I’m looking forward to reading more.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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