|Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews|
The Salisbury Manuscript
by Philip Gooden
Soho. 2008. 310 pp.
Philip Gooden has crafted an engaging British mystery with The Salisbury Manuscript that is notable for its delightful pairing of protagonists Tom Ansell and fiancée Helen Scott. Set in 1873, the story revolves around Tom's lawyerly travel to the city of Salisbury. His assignment is to meet with Felix Slater and collect a family manuscript of sensitive nature and transport it to his firm's offices in London. The task is so benign that Tom struggles to understand why it even exists. (What could be so awful that the manuscript has to leave the city?) Shortly after arriving in Salisbury, however, he makes a few odd introductions with the Slater family and begins to doubt that everyone is being honest with him. Then the bodies start dropping like flies, and Tom is unfortunately found front and center with blood on his hands. That's when figuring out just why the manuscript matters and what the real truth is becomes a whole lot more significant.
The Salisbury Manuscript is all about red herrings. Everyone Tom meets points him in a different direction, and they all have something to hide. Even though the story takes place in various locations, it reads very much like a drawing room mystery; everyone does have something to hide, but some of their secrets are more innocuous than others. I liked that Gooden went out of his way to make these secondary characters three-dimensional and give them all some personal back story of their own. One of them in particular, Henry Cathcart, is presented as a town leader with a surprising connection to Tom and a touching relationship with his invalid wife. I thought I had Cathcart pegged as a bit of a fool, but Gooden is clearly not satisfied with such an easy dismissal; he makes Cathcart someone the reader cares about, and his involvement in the plot thus becomes that much more significant. It's a neat trick and a valuable one that elevates the mystery above others in the genre.
As likeable as Tom is, though, and as much as the reader will want to follow his exploits, it is the relationship between Tom and Helen that truly makes the story sing. Although they are not quite in Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane territory, it is clear by the final pages that they are well on their way. Helen is an aspiring writer who likes to read sensationalist novels and spy on her neighbors in a Rear Window fashion. She's more adventurous than Tom, and her attraction to him makes the rather staid lawyer much more interesting. Tom seems destined to an unremarkable career, but Helen is certainly not interested in anything so ordinary. When she arrives in Salisbury to visit Tom in jail, she is like a force of nature, and he immediately resolves to solve the crime. Helen is, for lack of a better word, spunky as all get out, and along with Tom she follows all the trails, questions all the suspects, and peers in all the very dark corners. By novel's end the villain is revealed, the mystery uncovered, and the manuscript, with all of its secrets, safe at last. And Helen and Tom are well on their way to a life of crime solving—or at least I hope they are because they really are a lot of fun to spend a fall evening with.