The Streets by Anthony Quinn is part sociology, part history, part mystery, part political discussion. Set in the 1880s, it sets a fictional tale within true history, the sort of thing hated by historians themselves who fear that readers will believe it is all true. They should credit we readers with the ability to recognize fiction from fact. This is a story encompassing poverty, pride, crime, corruption, community and, almost, eugenics.
David Wildeblood has a new job. He is an inspector, a fact-collector, charged with touring the North London borough of Somers Town, conducting interviews and collating information to be published in Henry Marchmont’s weekly news sheet The Labouring Classes of London; living conditions, work, income, religion, diet, pastimes, crime, health etc. Marchmont is based on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London. At first Wildeblood is an outsider and woefully naïve, until he stumbles on costermonger Jo. Soon Wildeblood learns the argot, the alleys to avoid, and how to best submit his report to Marchmont’s loyal assistant Mr Rennert. Then he stumbles onto a scheme in which criminal landlords defraud their tenants, refuse to repair their properties then clear the streets for redevelopment leaving the inhabitants homeless. When a local man organizes a protest, he is later found drowned in the river. Wildeblood is warned by a reporter friend, Clifford Paget of The Chronicle, that his life may be in danger but he continues to investigate.
Wildeblood’s time in Somers Town is juxtaposed with his, albeit tenuous, relationship with his wealthy godfather Sir Martin Elder and Kitty, his daughter. The two stories come together as he recognizes a connection between a social charity providing poor city dwellers with a day trip to the countryside, and what is happening in Somers Town. The tentacles of property exploitation, fraud and social engineering spread around London. At times the sociology and politics of the author intruded into my head and the exposition distracted me from the story but, like all Quinn’s novels, the characters are a delight.
The description of The Streets as a ‘thriller’ though, is misleading. This is a thoughtful considered novel. Well-researched, it feels as if this book is close to the author’s heart; perhaps too close. For me, it was a slower, worthy read, compared with his other novels and less accessible.
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