Gallows Thief – Bernard Cornwell

Don’t click the ready bag or you’ll be doing the Newgate Morris at the Kings Head Inn, so fake away off, culley.

Bernard Cornwell is, I must confess, one of my all-time favorite authors of historical fiction. It is such a rare find, an author who writes well, creates exceptional atmosphere and characters and actually gets his history right….Author of the Sharpe series (a terrific long-running series set in the Napoleonic era), Cornwell has, in the last few years, branched out into other periods, bring the same quality and detail to such subjects as the Hundred Years War (Harlequin ( published in the U.S as The Archer’s Tale), Vagabond, Heretic (coming out late in 2003)) and the legend of Arthur (The Winter King, The Enemy of God, Excaliber). Reviews for each of the above will be posted at a later date (I’m not done Vagabond yet…give me a few more days).

Gallows Thief is a Regency-era mystery, set in London in 1817, with a London rich in detail, style and the inescapable harsh reality of daily life providing the backdrop. Captain Rider Sandman, ex-soldier, veteran of Waterloo, a gentleman now in penury, takes on the role of Investigator for the Home Secretary, looking into the conviction of a London portrait painter, guilty of murdering the Countess of Avebury and sentanced to hang (“to dance on Newgate’s stage”) in seven days. Moving from the secret clubs of London’s seedier nobility, from the bustle of the “flash” taverns to the flat green of the cricket field, Gallow Thief is remarkably good at evoking the feel and lives of the period, coupled with some interesting characters from all walks of life. It also offers a memorable lesson in Thieve’s Cant or the underworld slang of the era.

The only off-note (and it is a fairly minor quibble), was that the mystery itself was good but not that unique or exceptional…but this book isn’t really about the mystery, it is more of a glorious walk through the period, the lives of the characters, the atmosphere and the cold reality of the hangman’s noose and its impact on pre-Victorian society.

Just to expand your personal vocabulary, here’s a taste of the “flash” language:

Stealing a purse – filed the bit; boned the cole; clicked the ready bag

Prison – a sheep walk; the quod

Newgate Prison – King’s Head Inn

Turnkeys – Gaggers

Hanging – Scaffold hornpipe; Newgate Morris; scragged; twisted; crapped; nubbed; Jack Ketched; dancing on Newgate’s stage or rope gargling

Pistol – Stick

Sword – Tail

Stage – Deck

Good man – Flash scamp

Victim – Mum scull

Money – Rhino

Brothel – Academy

Prostitute – Frow

Flash – underworld; criminal; daring

To be criminal – On the cross

To be honest – On the square

Gallows Thief – Crap prig

For more slang from the era, check out this site.

To learn about the Regency period (1812-1830) check out the Eras of Elegance website.

For a complete list of Cornwell’s books, check out his own site.

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