Author Seán Haldane explores the frontier culture of 1869 British Columbia in an award-winning novel that wades through people’s preconceptions and ideas about savagery and civilization, set at a moment when geographic boundaries are expanding and Charles Darwin’s ideas are just beginning to challenge old frames of mind. This singular story offers a lively, up-close look at Victorian manners and views of that time, set in the context of cold-blooded murder.
Young Chad Hobbes has come from Victorian England to settle in Victoria, British Columbia, and after searching for work he joins the area’s new police force, assuming the duties of a sergeant after a white man is found brutally mutilated and murdered near an Indian encampment. The book becomes a fascinating detective story as Hobbes, dissatisfied with the quick arrest of an Indian for the crime, painstakingly pulls apart the seams of the case to discover the real perpetrator.
Hobbes’ investigation begins to uncover odd stories about the murdered man—an alienist, or early psychologist, of the time—who pursues an interest in “magnetation,” methods that employ both sexual and mystical “treatments.” The sergeant’s discoveries multiply as he questions the people whose lives touched that of the mesmerist, including those who sought his help.
The eventual solution of this superb crime novel is described in satisfying detail. The book, however, is not so much about the crime as about the mindset of this late Victorian era, told in an unvarnished way as Hobbes visits pubs, docks, parlors and police offices, and by all manner of people, from low-born servants to military officers, from clergy to members of the “finer” classes, each with long-held attitudes about their class-bound society. Each story adds a different slant to the tale.
Haldane gets under the skin of his characters, stripping away the civilized veneer to reveal the inner thoughts and desires of each individual, often at great odds with their public facades. Hobbes himself is forced to grapple with a confluence of feelings when he falls in love with a young Indian woman and must contrast his own preconceived notions of how “savages” think and act with the very different people and circumstances he actually encounters. All this happens at a crucial time in history when traditional ideas come face-to-face with a new world that’s about to lay waste to long-accepted notions about human nature.