Gallows Court (2018) by Martin Edwards

I was so excited when I heard about this book, which is a departure for Martin in that it is a historical novel. Of course he has chosen his time period well, 1930s London – after all he has read thousands of Golden Age mystery novels – surely that must have come in handy?

Before I begin to attempt to give any synopsis for this novel, I would like to describe the plot in this way: A spider web like maze, peppered with a large number of fireworks, hidden behind corners, which blow up in your face, (in a nice way), on a pretty regular basis. I lost count how many times I had mentally gone: ah ha!, only to have my brainwave blown to smithereens several pages later and when my light bulb moments were correct my mind did start making high pitched squeaks of excitement. All I can advise you to do if you live with other people, or a highly sensitive pet, is to assure them any loud noises whilst you’re reading are to be ignored and that they too will be ignored until the book is finished, though supplies of tea and biscuits wouldn’t go amiss. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t just start this book before bed.

Right with those parameters set let’s have a go at explaining what this book is about. Beginning… well at the beginning, we have a diary entry from 1919, with Juliet Brentano recording the death of her parents. Judge Savernake says it was due to Spanish flu, but Juliet is convinced that the Judge’s daughter, Rachel, was responsible and from that bombshell we are launched straight into the 1930s, with Rachel as our protagonist. Other diary entries from 1919 are interspersed, providing a troubling sidelight on Rachel and that is all I am going to tell you about them. Back to the 1930s there have of course been murders, followed by their killers’ supposed suicides. Rachel is without a doubt mixed up in this, knowing an awful lot more about them, even for an amateur sleuth, and journalist Jacob Flint is keen to figure out how. Yet this is no case for fools to rush into, as even those who grasp the merest of clues are immediately in danger and often do not live to tell the tale. Rachel is not one to reveal her secrets easily. She likes to play a lone hand, aided by two cohorts and definitely not by any established rules, but what game is she playing?

Overall Thoughts

After such a read it did take me a while to collect my thoughts. Well that’s understandable after you’ve had your mind

Artist’s depiction of what could happen to your mind when reading this book…

blown quite a number of times, (still finding bits under the sofa). This task was also harder as there is so much I could and would love to say about the plot, but it’s one of those ones where you can’t afford to say too much, so my review will have to focus a bit more on characters, but even then I will have to be careful. Though I will say the plot at times has a Jonathan Creek/John Dickson Carr-esqu hue.

When it comes to characters in this story, we have to talk about Rachel Savernake. On first hearing about this book and it having a female lead I wondered whether this character would feed into the current mould for historical novels set in the 20s and 30s with a female amateur sleuth, which in my opinion tend to fit a certain psychological and emotional pattern – a troubled past, economic necessity for work, romantic subplot after some stymied past experiences, as well as the narrative including a flow of this emotional mental dialogue. There is nothing wrong with any of this but it has become a type. So how does Rachel measure up? A bit like his creation Martin throws out this particular blue print and comes up with a tantalising new creation of his own. Is Rachel an amateur sleuth? Is she a victim? Is she good or bad? Is she a vigilante hero or perhaps more of an anti-hero? These were some of the myriad of questions which raced through my head as I read this book. One thing you can be certain of is that she is a dangerous character to be around and an intriguing aspect of this book is trying to figure out how much you can trust her, even like her, (though you’ll always find her fascinating). This is not just an issue for the reader but also for many of the characters around her who often misjudge or misinterpret her. It could be tempting to compare her alongside the modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, as played by Benedick Cumberbatch, but on second thoughts I think there is more of a hint of an Irene Alder in her… Perhaps I was reminded of this in the way Martin rejects and then revamps the sleuth and his sidekick trope in the story or perhaps it is because she is described as ‘more like a praying mantis.’ Rachel is a character who must definitely be experienced first-hand but here are a few quotes to whet your appetite for this brilliant protagonist:

‘If women were allowed to sit as judges, she’d reduce any wretch in the dock to a jelly.’

‘Candidly, gentlemen, I wouldn’t trust that woman an inch. If she wasn’t well-born and handsome, we’d regard her behaviour as deeply suspicious.’

However I should say whilst Rachel is very much centre stage, the other characters in this book are also very well–crafted, all making significant contributions to the final narrative, Jacob Flint in particular and the story does come at the plot from different angles and other characters’ perspectives. Martin certainly chose his narrative point of view very carefully and therefore very well. Some weeks ago a few bloggers I knew reviewed specific books chapter by chapter, detailing how their ideas about the mystery evolved along the way and in some ways I think this book would be an excellent candidate for this approach as you are continually needing to revaluate and re-assess what you think you know.

As to the ending? All I will say are three things:

  1. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.
  2. Gripping is an understatement. I’m surprised I didn’t get a paper cut in the last 80 pages, turning the pages that fast.
  3. I spent a lot of time mentally thinking: ‘blooming heck’.

Only two books into September and I think I might have found my book of the month already. The bar has definitely been raised and I have no idea what book to read next, without it paling into comparison against this one.

The good news is that you only have to wait 2 days in the UK until this book is available in the shops and online on the 6th, which unsurprisingly I strongly recommend buying with all due haste.

Rating: 5/5

Source: Review Copy (Head Zeus)

The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this book here.

10 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, which made me very excited about “Gallows Court”. 🤩 I got the impression Martin Edwards branched out into thriller territory for this novel, which made me less excited. But it sounds like there’s plenty of puzzle and enjoyment nonetheless! 🤓

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes there’s definitely a lot to puzzle out with this one. I think thriller as a term can sometimes come across as a pejorative and at times this might seem justified, but Sayers herself loved a good thriller, when it was written well, (always the tricky part), and that is what Martin does here, giving the reader a lot to puzzle out character and plot wise. I do hope this might become a series or at least will have a sequel.

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      • I’m enjoying it so far. I’m not sure how I feel about Jacob Flint, but the interpersing of Rachel’s narrative with the diary entries makes for an intriguing read. The atmosphere and descriptions are done very well, and are evocative of the period. So far, no twists have been revealed yet, so the jury is still out with respect to the puzzle itself. 😊

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      • [Light Spoilers]

        I’ve just finished ‘Gallows Court’, which I enjoyed. I can see why Martin Edwards describes it as a departure for him, since it has elements of mystery rather than being a mystery – despite being set in the ‘Golden Age’. For me, I felt that the intriguing Rachel Savernake and the atmospheric descriptions of the milieu held the novel together very well.

        On the one hand, I prefer my mystery and twists to be pertaining to the crime itself and its attendant clues, rather than to what’s actually happening and who’s really who. On the other hand, much as I’m undecided about Jacob, I think the story ended well, and left me anticipating what Rachel, Jacob and Oakes might get up to next. I can see them as a promising and interesting cluster of lead characters for the next instalment of the series: a wealthy vigilante, a reporter and an inspector.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Surely the what’s actually happening kind of equates to the crime/mystery plot of the book? Well perhaps that is just my way of seeing it. What made you indecisive about Jacob by the way? Always good to see a book from different points of view. I agree the ending does set itself up well for a sequel.

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      • I think I like my “what’s going on” to be related to deciphering who the culprit was and how the crime was achieved (in the case of impossible crimes). In the case of “Gallows Court”, I think the questions were slightly different, in that the “what’s going on” related to who turned out to be who, and why people did what they did. But I still enjoyed the novel. 😊

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