#BookReview - Soot by Andrew Martin

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home - stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey's death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade - for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist's last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor's prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows...

Told entirely through written reports - diary entries, letters, memoranda and notes, Soot cleverly uses the epistolary form, utilising different voices and occasionally unreliable narration to explain how Fletcher Rigge finds himself charged with investigating the murder of Matthew Hardy, and what his investigation reveals.
There's a real authenticity about the proceedings, it felt less like a book set in 1799 than a collection of  documents written at the time. From the colloquial, witty and occasionally bawdy diary entries through to the more formal exchange of letters, to the legal postscripts; the different voices of the chapters are distinctive and believable. The city of York, just starting to become industrialised is brought atmospherically to life; the almost constant snowfall a contrast to the grime of the early coal trade already resulting in a 'befoulment of the air.' The soot of the title refers not only to the coal sold by the deceased man's son, Captain Robin Harvey but also to the shades, or silhouettes the dead man was renowned for before his untimely demise. There are few clues as to the identity of his murderer but it seems the perpetrator must have been one of the last six people to sit for one of his shades.
Fletcher Rigge's diary entries, backed up by the reports of others, show him to be a serious, principled man, given to melancholy and guilty perhaps of a stubborn nostalgia. He is sent to debtor's prison following the suicide of his father who lost his entire estate through gambling. Determined to honour his father's commitments to his estate Rigge's sizeable debt was accrued due to the expense of repairing some of the labourer's cottages. He is freed from his debt by Captain Hardy but only if he can discover the identity of the killer within the month. A clever man, he is soon able to identify the six key suspects and it's here Andrew Martin really had fun with his characters, each vie for most colourful and while all have something of the grotesque about them - these are ordinary people with their flaws and idiosyncrasies writ large - each is written about with a certain affection, Andrew Martin is sharp but not cruel about his cast.
Although the droll characterisation and black humour are the most memorable features, it is also an intriguing and cleverly plotted mystery, the truth is gradually revealed and the blackness of the silhouettes is matched by the souls of certain participants. What a pleasure it was to read Soot with its fresh take on the classic murder mystery tale, I really enjoyed this intelligent and spirited book and recommend it to both crime and historical fiction lovers.
My thanks to the publishers for my copy, received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Soot is published in the UK by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. Andrew Martin's website is here.

About the Author
Andrew Martin is a journalist and novelist. His critically praised 'Jim Stringer' series began with The Necropolis Railway in 2002. The following titles in the series, Murder at Deviation Junction and Death on a Branch Line, were shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award and, in 2008, Andrew Martin was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in the Library Award. The Somme Stations won the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award.