After an accident that killed his father Thomas Fielding is sent to London to become an apprentice to his Uncle Henry Fielding a playwright and Chief Magistrate of London. Thomas has an iron hand made by his father after his own hand was crushed at his father’s forge when he was a young boy. This hand proves to be not only a talking point but very useful in solving crimes.
Thomas arrives in an eighteenth-century London full of filth, poverty and lawlessness. Almost immediately he finds himself witnessing a kidnap by the supposed Demon Undertaker who has been snatching victims across London in a hearse. He gives chase but is arrested as he is found near the abandoned hearse and accused of being the Demon Undertaker himself. Luckily when Thomas comes to court his uncle proves he really is his nephew and he is released.
The kidnapped girl, Grace is the daughter of a wealthy local businessman, Lord Davenport and Henry Fielding is put on the case. The mystery becomes more complex involving Grace’s governess and her illegitimate son, graverobbers and a dissection school as Thomas and a motley crew of his acquaintances, and secretly his cousin Esther, chase across London following clues to help Henry solve the crime.
In the end the plot is neatly tied up and Henry announces that he will take on his nephew and daughter (after a bit of persuasion) as well as Percy and Malarkey as his assistants to solve future mysteries. This is the beginning of the Bow Street Runners.
Told in the first person the plot moves along at a cracking pace with no let-up. There is plenty of detail and description of a filthy stinking London – repeated almost too much at times. The mix of real and imagined historical characters give the story an authenticity and a vivid picture of the period although it occasionally descends into over-the-top hammer-horror type gruesomeness. There is comedy too where Percy’s trousers always fall down and social issues such as poverty, race relations, slavery, and roles for women are lightly woven into the story. A fun read for those who enjoy a gruesome mystery.