Home > Books > The Sweet Smell of Decay by Paul Lawrence

The Sweet Smell of Decay by Paul Lawrence

The Sweet Smell of Decay by Paul Lawrence is the first of two Harry Lytle books and is being distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing. The book first appeared in 2009, and has been available in the US since 2011, the original British publisher having gone into administration. There’s an essential problem when it comes to writing about the past. Not to put too fine a point on it, some of the time, life was terrible. Now, of course, the author could firmly place rose-tinted spectacles on the nose and see only the better things (or invent better things). After all, authors are engaged in the business of writing fiction. So long as the story is good, most readers will neither know nor care whether the history is correctly portrayed. Yet there are always some purists who want accuracy alongside the good story. This produces a choice for the new writer. When you plan to write a historical murder mystery, do you put in the history as background only, keeping details to a minimum to push the story along at the fastest possible speed, or do you write a murder mystery where the history is an integral part of the investigation and solution to the crime(s)?

In this case, the title gives the answer to the question. Paul Lawrence has looked with clear eyes at the London of 1664. We have Charles Stuart on the throne and the country still dealing with the fall-out from the execution of Charles I and the failed Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. With a new Parliament in session and Puritanism in retreat, we meet Harry Lytle. He’s made as much money as he needs to live a quiet life during the days and a more dissolute life in the taverns at night. Then, much to his surprise, he receives a letter from his father instructing him to investigate the death of a previously unknown cousin. This commission makes him the unofficial and unpaid agent of the Earl of Shrewsbury, a powerful politician who was later to become one of the Immortal Seven. With some curiosity and not a great deal of enthusiasm, Harry attends the autopsy carried out by David Dowling (appropriately a butcher) and then sets off to the scene of the crime. As he moves on to the funeral and then into different parts of London, we’re given a whistle-stop tour through the different social strata of the day. Village folk are portrayed as only marginally more intelligent than turnips, while the manners of the emerging middle class rise to more sophistication but still seem somewhat parochial to our Harry’s London eyes. London itself is shown as desperate and dangerous with life cheap in some areas.

Paul Lawrence standing out against an Australian background

Not to put too fine a point on it, our Harry is an unlikeable hero when we first meet him. There’s little evidence of any real brain and he acts with an innocent view of the world. Quite how he could have achieved his current position in life without greater awareness of his surroundings is baffling. He wanders into danger without any real understanding of the risks. His “sidekick”, David Dowling, is altogether more worldly and sensible. Yet, I suppose, there’s nothing in Writing a Bestseller for Dummies to require the hero to be attractive. Indeed, there have been many highly successful books based on the idea of an antihero. Except, this is hardly a Dirty Harry for his age. Although he does demonstrate minor fighting skills, this is not a sword-toting cavalier rushing into battle on the side of right. Admittedly, this could be because, at this time, there was some confusion about what “right” was. There were still anti-monarchists and covert supporters of the Commonwealth around, religious schisms were being aggravated by laws promoting Anglicanism, and many in the merchant and political classes were corrupt, i.e. their money defined what was “right”. So we’re rather stuck with a protagonist who’s a bit of an idiot and not mindful of his own safety.

As to the murder itself, Harry does finally manage to work out the details of who was doing what to whom and why, but he does it by blundering around like an elephant in the proverbial china shop — yes, he makes that much noise and causes that much chaos, everyone is out to kill him by the time he’s finished examining the more breakable stock. As the stalking horse or tethered goat who manages to get loose, it’s then just a case of surviving all the attacks and identifying who’s paying the failing assassins. I ended up feeling slightly sorry for Harry. He’s put through the mangle and I’m not at all sure he emerges with with any greater wisdom or any real credit — actually, in money terms, he emerges poorer. For now, we’ll have to be satisfied with survival as a virtue in its own right.

The prose is slightly dense and the ending is overly long. Both tested my patience. Add in the pestilential details of life in London and a less than sympathetic protagonist and you have the picture. This is not to deny interest. There’s a nice puzzle in there waiting to be solved and, with slightly more discipline, Paul Lawrence could have produced a real winner. As it is, The Sweet Smell of Decay is a debut novel with the usual faults but, if you like gritty historical realism with reasonable ingenuity required to arrive at the solution, you will probably get enough from this to justify going on to read the sequel, A Plague of Sinners.

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

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: