The Black Hand
Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 2008
First Line: I stepped across the still of the conservatory, glass crunching under the heels of my boots, and steadied my Webley pistol with both hands, reluctant to step inside.
The Black Hand is what happens when one combines the allure of the 19th century detective with the skill and tendancies honed during the height of the hard-boiled error. Inspector Barker is a 19th Marlowe with kung-fu skills and a pair of inseparable sunglasses. Llewelyn, Barker’s apprentice is the slightly sarcastic, somewhat snide narrator whose voice dominates the novel. It is perhaps a little odd, and certainly unique amongst the crime and detective novel’s I’ve read thus far, that the narrator of the novel is not the quirky detective hero but rather his sidekick. Of course, calling Llewelyn a side kick is not entirely fair, he is slightly more to that. He is Barker’s apprentice, yes and he certainly isn’t as off-beat as his boss but he is still a unique character in his own right.
The plot of The Black Hand, while it opens up with a storm swept fight scene illuminated by Llewelyn’s keen wit as well as flashes of lightening, quickly steps backward in time to a Thame’s side crime scene where lays the body of an infamous Italian assassin. From there the plot delves quickly into Barker’s quest to stave off the pending invasion of the Sicilian mafiosa. There is no locked door mystery, no grand revelation of facts, and no precise set equation in which the crimes occur. No, the Black Hand, is very much a modern crime thriller simply set in on the mean streets of 19th century London rather then the shadowed streets off San Francisco or New York.
It works quite beautifully and while the idea of an a crime story involving the mafia being set in 19th London is little bit odd for a reader used to movies featuring the mob being set during a more modern era and in American cities it is a sensation that quickly wears off. This is in no small part due to Will Thomas’ ability to describe the setting, describing places and the journeys between places with a ready ease. Indeed, if I wasn’t convinced already, The Black Hand has sealed my belief that as important as the detective is the environment in which he operates in is almost equally important. Mike Hammer’s New York, Marlowe’s Los Angeles, Spencer’s Boston, and Barker’s London are characters in their own right and as important to the quality of their stories as they themselves are.
Of course while Barker is the big detective of The Black Hand, his assistant/apprentice Llewelyn is the narrator and thus is worth a look on his own. If I could I would paste the whole prologue here, the opening knife fight of the novel was enough to sell me on the read, and quite a thrilling action scene. Many of the asides that Llewelyn throws out during the fight give a good indicator of his character’s wit such as his bemoaning the spiky nature of foreign plants “Why can’t they be round and safe like English leaves?” or how his attacker was “…ready to bury a dagger in my chest for decoration, if I had no objections.” Of course, later in the novel, Llewelyn gets a bit cheekier when after arriving a Scotland Yard after being arrested at a crime scene (for the second time) “We’re home!….Put the kettle on.”
The Black Hand starts out with a bang and, while it slows the pace down quite considerably during the rest of the novel, remains an engaging read and curious amalgam of modern hard-boiled sensibility in a a historical setting. Though it didn’t win The Black Hand was a nominee for the 2009 Shamus Award, an award that had I know it existed before I started this little project I would have consulted quite frequently. While I don’t plan on going back and reading the earlier Barker and Llewelyn novels (of which there are 4, excluding The Black Hand) I will be curious to see where the series goes from here.