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Onyx reviews: Mister Slaughter by
After a lengthy hiatus, Robert McCammon returned to publishing in 2002
with a fresh approach: historical crime fiction. First, there was Speaks
the Nightbird, a book McCammon had written a decade earlier that introduced Matthew Corbett who, in 1699,
was a scrivener-apprentice to a magistrate in the Carolina colony, where he uncovered the truth behind an apparent case of witchcraft.
Five years later, McCammon followed up with a sequel, The Queen of Bedlam. He relocated
Matthew to New York, a burgeoning city of approximately 5000, where he had become a clerk for a town
magistrate. He was later hired as a private investigator with perhaps the first detective agency in North America. His first big,
successful case was
tracking down the serial killer known as the Masker. One
of the charming elements of the series is the way McCammon "retcons" the
evolution of criminal detection and forensic science, putting Matthew front
and center during some of its seminal developments. He also pays close attention
to period detail, although in an afterword he confesses to taking some shortcuts
and deliberately fudging the occasional detail for simplicity and plot considerations.
Mister Slaughter picks up where The
Queen of Bedlam left off. Thanks to a series of colorful
reports of his exploits during the Masker investigation—published in Earwigs,
the city's first tabloid—Matthew is now a local celebrity. He's also
a marked man, having received a playing card bearing a bloody
fingerprint that means he's come to the undesired attention of a criminal
enterprise that is blossoming in the New World under the leadership of the
enigmatic and deadly Professor Fell.
While exploring the Chapel estate, a
manor north of the city that featured in the climax of the previous novel,
Matthew stumbles upon a treasure trove hidden in a book, the princely sum
of £80 in gold coins. He keeps the discovery to himself, a decision that
has serious implications for what comes after.
Matthew and his mentor, Hudson Greathouse, are assigned a formidable task by
Governor Lord Cornbury. They
must travel back to Bedlam (New Jersey Colony's Public Hospital for the Mentally
escort a killer to New York for transport
back to England, where he will stand trial for a series of horrific murders reminiscent of
those perpetrated by Sweeney Todd.
This undertaking, which they accept for a fee of £5 (which puts the
magnitude of Matthew's discovery into perspective) is supposed to take the men
Tyranthus Slaughter, formerly a barber, the
lunatic glimpsed in the window on their earlier visit, is cut from the same cloth
as Hannibal Lecter—suave, intelligent, charismatic and lethal. He was
arrested for his part in highway robberies, and he feigned madness for years
rather than admit to his crimes. He's clearly an escape risk—he's tried on
numerous occasions, nearly biting off a doctor's thumb during one attempt. In
the company of Greathouse and Matthew, he becomes a buzzing bee,
chattering, needling, provoking and goading his chaperones, searching for
weaknesses and triggers.
Ultimately Slaughter comes up with an
offer too tempting for Greathouse to resist, despite the fact that it
is an obvious ploy that will provide him with numerous opportunities to escape. Greathouse isn't seduced by the promised
he does need money for an honorable purpose. The opportunity for Matthew to tell
his mentor about his unexpected windfall passes, a disclosure which might have
influenced Greathouse's decisions, and guilt gnaws at Matthew after their
mission goes south.
The route to the buried treasure takes the travelers miles
off the beaten path, to a once-thriving village that is now a ghost town because
of "the fever." Matthew and Greathouse impose on the hospitality of a blind
pastor, and become acquainted with an orphaned boy in his care. The chance encounter proves regrettable for all involved.
machinations leaves Greathouse seriously injured
and Matthew stranded in circumstances that trigger childhood phobias. His
situation goes from bad to worse when he's captured by Indians. The scenes
in their village are among the book's most entertaining. Matthew meets a tea-drinking brave called Walker in Two Worlds who is
considered insane because he was captured and taken abroad as part of a
traveling show, where he witnessed things that were at
odds with his native teaching. Fortunately, he also learned English, which
greatly facilitates communication. Walkers skills as a
tracker prove important to Matthew's quest.
The second half of the
novel is a cat-and-mouse adventure, with Matthew and Slaughter taking turns
pursuing each other through untamed territory. Life in the colonies isn't simple
or easy for the settlers, and it becomes much more dangerous and difficult when
Mister Slaughter passes through. The book turns fast-paced, gritty, brutal, and
Its biggest flaw is the author's insistence on ending chapters with false
cliffhangers. "A pity about Matthew Corbett. Dead at such a young
age," an early chapter begins after Matthew embarks on a dangerous task. No
reader will believe that the protagonist has died, though. "Your friend has died,"
another chapter ends. The next
begins, "In fact your friend died twice," and the speaker goes on to
outline the measures taken to resurrect the friend. McCammon attempts the same
gimmick over and over, but it's like crying wolf too many times. The prank
quickly loses its effectiveness and becomes annoying. It's a minor point, but
one that stands out as unnecessary. The book offers enough thrills and chills
without these manipulations.
Matthew finally emerges from the wilderness, but not before several
confrontations with Slaughter and crossing paths with the criminal syndicate
carrying out contract killings in the New World. Matthew also comes face to face
with the nefarious Professor Fell and makes a discovery that means he will never
again look at sausages the same way. The book is a fine installment in a
series whose charming protagonist has a lot of life left in him.
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