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Onyx reviews: Snow Hill by Mark Sanderson

There's no better way to start a novel than with a line like this: "I went to my funeral this morning." It makes the reader wonder if this will be a book told from the viewpoint of a dead person, in the vein of The Lovely Bones.

The year is 1936. World War II is still a few years hence, and the City of London seems like a small place. The setup for the novel is based on rumored events that a work colleague told first-time novelist Mark Sanderson about, involving a crime that may have been covered up to prevent a national scandal.

After the book's brief prolog, Sanderson jumps back to recount the previous, eventful eleven days. The protagonist, Johnny Steadman, is an ambitious reporter for London's Daily News. He's trying to break out of the court beat, where he has little chance of making a scoop. Then he receives an anonymous tip saying that Snow Hill police station lost an officer.

Johnny's best friend, PC Matt Turner, is a police officer at Snow Hill who is troubled by nightmares of unknown cause. Matt hasn't heard anything about a fallen colleague, and Inspector Rotherforth calls the rumor "balderdash." 

The book's greatest strength is in the way it captures the sights, sounds and scents of the Smithfield region of the British capitol—the meat market—nearly 100 years ago. It was a far different time. Homosexuality was scandalous—in fact, illegal—although there were businesses that catered to that element of society. Characters' attitudes toward homosexuality and their frequent use of offensive slang to refer to gay men and gay sex are mitigated by the knowledge that the author is gay. The police department was rife with corruption, and officers were obligated to live close to their station houses, often bunking down on site when on duty.

Johnny's relationship with Matt is interesting. In modern parlance it might be called a bromance—there is no sexual element to it. In fact, Johnny has been in love with Matt's pregnant wife, Lizzie, for years. Yet, there is a suggestion of latent homosexuality. Johnny seems confused by an odd encounter in an alley. In the thickest of fogs for which London is famous, an unknown male assailant kisses him. Johnny is also disoriented by visits to gay sexually oriented businesses and male brothels. 

Several other murders follow, all of them connected to the gay subculture. Someone continues to feed clues to Johnny as he vies against rival reporter Henry Simkins for the story of his career. Compromising photographs taken under mysterious circumstances are sent to Johnny as warnings not to pursue his inquiry and a brutal male rape is depicted unflinchingly, although the victim's reaction to the trauma is surprisingly tepid.

Snow Hill is the first book in a proposed trilogy, but it is not very successful, either as a character study or as a crime novel. The crime plot is complicated, convoluted, unconvincing and lacking sufficient motivation to ring true, and the characters lack significant depth. Dialog is clunky and unsophisticated, and a somewhat heavy-handed moral is proclaimed in the closing pages. Hopefully these are shortcomings that Sanderson can work out in subsequent books.

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