The Streets by Anthony Quinn
In The Streets, David Wildeblood is a young and inexperienced journalist documenting the lives of the poor for Henry Marchmont’s weekly, The Labouring Classes of London. It is 1882 and David is alone in the unfamiliar metropolis, estranged from his family in Norfolk and easy prey for the thugs and thieves who prowl the slums. It is not, however, the working class criminals who pose the greatest threat to David, for as he pursues his investigation of Somers Town, it becomes clear to him that someone is making a profit from the suffering of the poor and they are prepared to kill anyone who gets in the way. Aided by pseudo-scientists who misuse Darwin’s theories, it is the respectable and well-heeled who prove to be the most savage.
Some aspects of the The Streets’ plot were predictable and the narrator’s naïveté stretched credulity at times. Having already been pickpocketed and assaulted, why would David agree to meet his assailants again in an abandoned warehouse? Granted, David is a kind-hearted character who is prepared to take risks in his quest for justice, but dramatic irony (i.e. the author deliberately putting the reader in a position of greater knowledge than the protagonist) can go too far. The pacing of the novel is a little erratic; I felt at times that some dilemmas were resolved too quickly and fortuitously while other events were drawn out.
The chief appeals of The Streets are its premise (investigating a conspiracy), the gradual revelation of the narrator’s character and the details.
“I asked him if he remembered when this occurred, and he blew out his cheeks in such a way as to suggest he could sooner recall the date of the last lunar eclipse. The time snailed by.”
Anthony Quinn, The Streets
Despite the Victorian setting and slang, The Streets feels relevant and contemporary (the abuse of the poor and the twisting of science and religion to justify exploitation goes ever on). Quinn deftly balances social concerns with interesting characters who elicit sympathy or curiosity
I enjoyed The Streets enough to go out and buy Anthony Quinn’s previous novel (Half of the Human Race) before I had finished it and I’ll be looking out for Quinn’s next novel.
The Streets has also made me feel I really must read the inspiration for many historical novels set in the Victorian era: Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Have you read it? Do you recommend it?