This thriller is as good as anything by Hilary Mantel

Andrew Taylor’s historical crime novel, The Silent Boy, is so good it makes you rethink all your high-low prejudices. It reminds me of Dickens

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

The Silent Boy Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins, pp.432, £16.99, ISBN: 9780007506583

A few years ago, after a lifetime of wearing white shirts through which the straps of my white bra were plainly visible, I discovered a remarkable fact: if you wear a pink or even a crimson bra underneath a pale shirt, it doesn’t show. For several weeks I passed on this gem of truth to all my women friends. Was my enthusiasm met with relish, gratitude? It was not. They all said the same thing in response: ‘Oh, didn’t you know? I’ve always known that.’

I expected it would be the same in the case of Andrew Taylor. While reading The Silent Boy I was so overexcited by its brilliance that I asked numbers of friends if they’d ever come across Taylor’s work. Surely I was alone in the world in not having heard of this paragon? But the strange truth is that his name did not ring any bells, at least among the sort of book buyers who would purchase anything by Hilary Mantel, say, or Rose Tremain.

And yet this book, which begins in Paris in 1792, is every bit as fine. It may be that devotees of crime fiction know better, since Taylor has won awards with names like the Diamond Dagger and the New Blood Dagger, as well as a scroll from the Mystery Writers of America (one wonders whether these gongs are actual blood-stained daggers and scrolls, like on a pirate ship). Perhaps, then, his work has become becalmed in the inlet of historical thrillers, preventing the readers of so-called literary fiction from happening upon him?

The Silent Boy is so good that it is sure to attract universally rave reviews which, it is to be hoped, will billow his sails. Now that the line between chick lit and high fiction is growing ever more wobbly and indistinct, it is high time that really well-written mysteries and thrillers stopped being plonked on booksellers’ tables alongside Agatha Christie and biographies of Fred West. Scandinavians have cottoned onto this already. Patricia Highsmith devoted a career to it. Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, has also attempted to break out of the confines expected of the genre. It is not simply a case of whydunnits taking the high road, while whodunnits take the low. A masterpiece such as Great Expectations asks both questions, but no one ever describes it as a thriller.

‘Say nothing. Not a word to anyone. Whatever you see. Whatever you hear. Do you understand? Say nothing. Ever.’ These are the opening lines of The Silent Boy, a threat whispered during the pre-Revolution bloodbath in which the child’s mother is cudgelled before his eyes.

The boy is called Charles, he is 11, and he does as he is told. He does not speak throughout the whole book, but we are privy to his thoughts and above all his fears. Fleeing his mother’s Paris apartment, Charles is taken into the care of a French count (who may or may not be the boy’s natural father) and his sidekick, a highly educated but rather sinister German physician.

Brought to England, Charles is confined again and again. He finds himself trapped in a large country house in the west country, where a kind vicar’s sister reads him Robinson Crusoe. He is kidnapped and locked in a the cupboard of an abandoned boathouse, a hessian sack put over his head. He escapes, only to become the lone occupant of a house in what is now Bloomsbury. All the time he is terrified, of the dark, of the tree that taps against his window, of the return of the man who butchered his mother.

Running in parallel to the child’s dismal adventures is the story of one Edward Savill, an English gentleman and the erstwhile husband of Charles’s mother. This unfortunate woman is the one weak element in the book. She repeats a rather repulsive sexual invocation at least three times, but is given almost no other lines: all we know is that she is manipulative and wanton and possibly a spy.

Many years earlier she ran off to Italy with a lover, but Savill remained married to her and therefore Charles is now his responsibility. If he can find him in time to save him.

Many elements of The Silent Boy bring Dickens to mind: the ill-treated child, the streets of old London, the kindness of strangers, the excellent storytelling, even the names of some the characters. It is utterly gripping, extremely well executed and suspenseful to the last. Readers of these pages more observant than I may have already spotted the name as a regular crime fiction reviewer. But for the rest here it is, to remember: Andrew Taylor.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99. Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Donna Farrer

    What a great plot…I love the idea of knowing he can’t speak yet being able to know his thoughts is a great hook. I am currently reading In The Company of Wolves by James Michael Larranaga, is his site. I recommend his book, it’s such a good thriller with a little paranormal mixed in. Thanks for this review,I am adding it to my tbr stack!

  • Emilia

    I think Andrew Taylor suffers from snobbery because he works in more than one genre – historical fiction and detectives, neither of which is likely to be reviewed by ‘the better papers’. His histories are very absorbing, all varied in time and place, and with no massive slabs of undigested research. His Lydmouth series of detective stories create a real town with credible people and relationships, and his Roth trilogy is gruesome but compelling. He appeals to readers of detective stories, historical fiction, both and neither. I have given his books to people of different generations and all have marvelled at not having heard about him. Our county library has got rid of most of his books from the 1990s, but people still ask for them – if you read one or two you want to read the rest, but he doesn’t have the irritating stylistic tics of so many writers so he can convince in each genre. And no, I’m not related to him, nor on commission, just a happy reader..

    • Madeleine

      I agree with Emilia. I’ve read most of Taylor’s books and I must say when reading Cressida’s review in the magazine last week I was surprised she’d not heard of him other than as a reviewer of crime fiction for the Speccie. I started with The American Boy which has to be one of my favourite books; the Lydmouth series was excellent; I have just started the Silent Boy and am drawn in (right from the start)

  • richiesan

    Just finished Bleeding Heart Square by this author, only because it was in the Sunday Times list of the best 50 crime & thrillers. I must say it was rather good. Perhaps we’re about to see an upsurge in the popularity of his books.

  • Amanda Craig

    Delighted someone else has discovered this marvellous writer. The Silent Boy especially good (and is a sequel to The Scent of Death).