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Onyx reviews: Mister Slaughter by Robert McCammon

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 Infirm) to 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 two days. 

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 fortune, but 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. 

Slaughter's 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 compelling.

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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