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Wakling, Christopher - 'The Devil's Mask'
Trade Paperback: 320 pages (June 2011) Publisher: Faber and Faber Ltd ISBN: 0571239226

THE DEVIL'S MASK by Christopher Wakling is a standalone novel, featuring young lawyer Inigo Bright, set in early 19th century Bristol, shortly after the abolition of slavery. Inigo is the youngest of three brothers, the others being the boorish John, overly fond of alcohol, and his father's favourite, and the sensitive, piano playing Sebastian. As the least favourite of his father, Inigo has been allowed to join a law firm, rather than the family mercantile firm, Bright & Co. Inigo also has a fiancee, Lilly, an attractive but slightly shallow young lady from a wealthy Bristol family.

At the start of the novel, Inigo's boss and mentor Carthy has given him the less than riveting task of reconciling the Dock company's accounts with fees paid by various shipowners. As Inigo starts to go through the paperwork, he sees that Bright & Co, amongst other firms, seem to owe the Dock company money. But he soon realises that something murkier is amiss than a few outstanding fees, particular with regard to the Belsize ship, which has recently docked in Bristol. (The reader already knows from the prologue that the ship's master is unpopular with the ship's crew, has a rather guilty conscience and is living in fear of events once the ship lands).

Helped by Blue, a black sailor on the Belsize, Inigo tries to interview the ship's officers to find out what happened on the ship's most recent journey. Meanwhile a number of corpses of unidentified black women have been found in the Bristol area, and an impoverished labourer who discovered the first body has been arrested as a convenient scapegoat, and Inigo starts to contemplate a possible connection between these deaths and the Belsize.

Inigo soon finds that not only the harbour company, but the local judiciary, wish to bring a halt to his investigations, and even more alarmingly he is subject to anonymous threats of violence and kidnapping. Beneath the veneer of wealth and respectability, and frenzy of construction of houses for the newly rich mercantile class, Bristol has mean streets and a corrupt underbelly he would never have dreamt of.

Inigo is an engaging young hero, lively and witty, and Wakling convincingly depicts the sights and smells of 19th century Bristol, and the drastic contrast between living conditions of the wealthy and the poor. The historical aspect, and theme of slavery post-abolition is very well handled, conveying the plight of its victims in a sympathetic manner. I highly recommend THE DEVIL'S MASK, as a well written, pacey, enjoyable novel.

Laura Root, England
July 2011

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last updated 31/07/2011 09:11