Onyx reviews: Snow Hill by Mark
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
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
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,
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
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
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