16 MARCH 2002, Page 55

Gore in the library

Jane Gardam


Bantam, £12.99, pp. 429, ISBN 0593048032

This is a long and somewhat breathless first novel in the Gothic manner, a murdermystery set in the London of Hogarth and

Chippendale and their contemporary artists, craftsmen and apprentices. It is spirited, 18th-century stuff with a fascination for the macabre not unlike Rose Tremain's in Restoration, and it has the pace of veteran Georgette Heyer without the pastel tints. One or two bodices are disarranged.

What makes it interesting is Janet Gleeson's professional knowledge of 18thcentury furniture. She has worked for both Sotheby's and Bonham's and edited Miller's Antiques and Collectibles for Reed books. The story hinges on the conception, construction, cross-country delivery and setting-up of a gentleman's library in Cambridgeshire. There are details of secret drawers and rare woods. She has done a great deal of reading and does not make the usual mistakes. She would never put an 18th-century letter, note or billet-doux, of which there are very many, into an envelope. London rackets convincingly around in all its filth and glamour. We have both the theatre, the beau monde and the Foundling Hospital in Comm Fields; it's nice to walk the roads we know, mobcaps looking out of windows in St Martin's Lane, carriages thundering by in Golden Square. Traffic was heavy with sometimes three carriages to a family.

There is energetic and uncomfortable commuting between London and Cambridge, all the inns and their awful menus described. Horseheath Hall, the scene of the crime, is a real house now demolished and the denouement takes place on top of one of the towers of its park, with flashing sword, masked assassin and feminist heroine who suddenly faints. It would have thrilled Catherine Morland at Northanger Abbey.

It is also interesting to see someone playing private 'tee before anything was known about blood groups and fingerprints. The hero, a young cabinet-maker's apprentice, does his best though he often vomits when confronted with the evidence, and one cannot wonder. At the end he assembles everyone in the blood-stained library just like a (sexier) Hercule Poirot, and manages well.

My complaint is the portrait of Chippendale. Gleeson does not like him and assures us in her notes that he was not quite straight. There was a prosecution for his import of French chairs into Britain without paying duty. But does this justify making up a story about his abandoning and sending to possible death his illegitimate child, who she says 'is purely fictional'? The dead cannot be libelled, which is the lifeblood of the historical novelist, but it does seem a little impertinent.

Jane Gardam's latest novel, The Flight of Maidens, is published in paperback by Abacus.