Derby Day, by DJ Taylor, Chatto & Windus, RRP£17.99, 416 pages
Hilary Mantel’s well-deserved 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall was a signal that much of the best fiction at the moment is historical. Either contemporary British novelists find our times uninspiring, or, perhaps likelier, we live in so turbid a state of flux that the past is easier to hold in focus than the present. In the case of crime fiction, there is an additional factor. Science and technology have reduced realistic modern crime stories to forensic “procedurals”. With mobile phones, computers and DNA testing, the psychological interest of modern crime stories gets overwhelmed by the technical stuff.
So it is no surprise that DJ Taylor, who has proved himself a fine contemporary novelist and written a first-rate biography of Thackeray, should have turned his hand to Victorian mystery stories.Derby Day is a triumphant success, and a great reminder of why Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Trollope, while writing carefully plotted novels, often with a strong element of the thriller or the whodunnit, were never forced into the tedium of outlining police procedure. Taylor glories in the fact that his tightly plotted story all hangs on the full-blown characters he so exuberantly paints on his crowded Frith-like canvas.
A widower named Mr Davenant, a reclusive Lincolnshire farmer who never wants to leave the wolds, acquires a horse called Tiberius. Davenant is by no means the sort of man who has owned or trained race-horses or mixed in the aristocratic racing circles, but Tiberius turns out to be a winner, and those who do move in that raffish set become obsessed by the animal.
Our villain is the superbly awful Happerton – caddish, adulterous, amoral, greedy, a figure whom Thackeray himself would have been proud to draw. The means by which he swindles poor Davenant out of the horse, and the obsessive machinations of his cynical wife and of the shady characters of the turf who also want Tiberius, are deftly brought to life. The Blue Riband Club, where much of the plot is hatched and where we meet Happerton’s dreadful friend Captain Raff – “a small dirty and rather ill-favoured former officer” – is pure Thackeray on one level, but Taylor outsoars pastiche and has written a novel in its own right, rather than a parody of the 19th-century books he knows so well.
Not knowing one end of a horse from the other, I am a poor judge as to whether Taylor has made any mistakes. My guess is that he has not. Certainly, the clothes, food, carriages and interiors of mid-Victorian England, with its clubs, rich drawing-rooms, dives and race meetings, its low cloudy skies and its sunshine, are believable. The spookiness of Scroop Hall (“The rooks’ cry in the sodden garden and the wind, coming in through the cracks in the frames, sounds uncannily like a human voice”) is worthy of Wilkie Collins at his best.
Moreover, Captain McTurk, the detective who unravels the complexity of the crimes in this story, is very much in the same mould as Sergeant Cuff in Collins’ The Moonstone. Although he enters the book at a late stage, McTurk’s patient enquiry, working from his gloomy office in Northumberland Avenue, nevertheless dominates the story.
“Captain McTurk was not perhaps a very advanced student of criminal psychology – his interests in wrongdoing extended only to catching them and locking them up.” But McTurk, who featured in Taylor’s earlier novel Kept, is nevertheless an intelligent plodder who gains the reader’s respect by his integrity and doggedness. He might lack subtlety, but DJ Taylor most definitely does not, and in this unputdownable Victorian romp he enjoyably proves himself to be one of the finest of our 21st-century novelists.
AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ (Arrow Books). His new book, ‘Dante in Love’ is published next month by Atlantic Books