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The Providence Rider by Robert McCammon

The Providence Rider by Robert McCammon (Subterranean Press, 2012) continues the saga of Matthew Corbett, an early version of a private investigator working his trade in 1703. For those of you whose memories are short, this is the year in which Daniel Defoe was convicted of publishing a seditious libel and put in a pillory. Naturally, all his loyal fans turned up and pelted him unmercifully with flowers. Those were the days when star power was edging up to achieve more revolutionary outcomes. Except, of course, this book sees us in the Americas where the Dutch have transferred their title in New Netherland to the British. To wipe out the memory of this foul infestation, we renamed it New York. In such volatile times, there’s always a chance for a young man of talent to make a name for himself as an investigator. Equally, there’s also plenty of opportunity for an International Master Criminal to emerge.

This is the fourth book in the series. It all began with Speaks the Nightbird in which the young Matthew Corbett is clerking for an ageing travelling magistrate. They’ve drawn the short straws of dealing with the case of an alleged witch in the Carolinas. The second book, Queen of Bedlam, sees young Corbett continuing in his legal support role, but moving to New York City where he’s adopted into the problem-solving Herrald Agency. Although it’s a murder mystery, he gets the first clues about Professor Fell. Then comes Mister Slaughter in which the Agency accepts a commission to escort Tyranthus Slaughter from Philadelphia to New York. Now the year is 1703 and Corbett is back in New York. More worryingly, it’s fairly obvious Professor Fell is trying to attract his attention.

In this book, Robert McCammon more or less abandons the idea of problem-solving as equivalent to the role of a detective. Instead the problems are more practical in the sense of survival in a number of situations of imminent death. Although there’s a slowly emerging jigsaw puzzle for him to assemble, that’s not really the point. Instead we have a historical thriller in which Corbett is inadvertently cast into the role of crimefighter, not to say secret agent, except he’s denied the help of a Q to supply advanced technology to help him escape danger. Rather he must depend on the practical assistance of the women around him. Indeed, one of the ironies of this book is that the women as criminals are more intelligent than, and as lethal as, the men, while the female “innocent victims” prove to have more than common or garden spunk to see them through crises.

A photograph in which we look up to Robert McCammon

I admit to being a sucker for a good mystery and I’ve no problem in locating what’s usually a murder in the past. To a significant degree, the mechanism for solving crimes is psychology either in working out who had the right motive to go along with the opportunity, or for inducing a confession. So people are people and haven’t changed that much since they first collapsed on to the couch back in the cave while waiting for their wives to BBQ a dinosaur steak (deliberate sexism and anachronism — history buffs will know the charcoal for BBQs was not invented until the Bronze Age, a few years after the dinosaurs had died out). In most cases, this makes the historical detail little more than window dressing for the definition of the puzzle to be solved. It takes considerable ingenuity to make the period details critical to the solution of the crime. However, when authors make the strategic decision to abandon the mystery element, this leaves us with only the history and adventure. The idea of such books transports me back to my youth when I rapidly ingested H Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Sax Rohmer, Sapper and all the others who churned out adventure novels in which white men fought the good fight against potentially supernatural women, international spies, master criminals, African and Asian villains, and other potentially dangerous folk. Our heroes would whip up the horses, leap into carriages (sometimes of the railway ilk), literally set sail and, in later books, engage in car chases (slow-motion by today’s standards). At the time, it was all very exciting but, looking back, it was pallid stuff.

This is the problem with The Providence Rider which is, sad to say, the weakest of the Corbett novels so far. Let’s take an entirely hypothetical situation. If someone ties up our hero, attaches a heavy weight to his legs and throws him into the river, it can emerge that, as a young man, he studied with Harry Houdini and so can hold his breath a long time while unravelling the knots. Or he can turn his watch around to the rope and, despite the water, fire a laser to cut through it. Except we have no convenient escape artists or science fictional technology to fall back on in 1703 — this also excludes steampunk because, in a strictly historical novel, he can’t have a clockwork chain saw concealed in the heel of his left boot. So his only hope is for someone else to dive in and save him — not the most exciting of rescues. More importantly, it’s humiliating our hero can’t save himself. In other words, by definition, historical thrillers are not terribly thrilling by modern standards unless the realism of watching men pulled out of rivers like drowned rats is your thing. This forces the author to play games like framing the story with a simile about the ocean food chain with plankton at the bottom and sharks at the top, or have a vaguely bloodthirsty Sikh cut off someone’s head with a serrated knife — curious how authors often pick Asia as the source of their bloodthirsty villains.

This leaves us with an interesting conclusion. By any standards, The Providence Rider is beautifully written and, to my not terribly well-informed eye, it looks reasonably accurate in its period detail. More to the point, it’s a natural follow-on from Mister Slaughter so to anyone already hooked and interested in watching Matthew Corbett slowly mature into a top-class problem-solver, this is probably a must-read. But to my old and jaded sensibilities, this is a step off the track in the wrong direction. Although it nicely avoids the dire sexism of Victorian and Edwardian thrillers, the plot involving Professor Fell nevertheless fails to thrill me as it would have done more than fifty years ago. Our Master Criminal is afflicted by the usual intellectual arrogance and is, at times, remarkably gullible. If you have not read the earlier books, Speaks the Nightbird and Queen of Bedlam are terrific and should be read at the earliest possible opportunity.

Reasonably good artwork by Vincent Chong.

For a review of another book by Robert McCammon, see The Five.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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