On August 10th, 1849, a vicious form of Asiatic cholera (which would ravage all parts of Britain) made its appearance in Hull. This terrible scourge devastated the city for three months and killed 1,860 – a rate of one in 43 of the population. D.M. Mark uses this grim year in the City of Culture’s history as the backdrop to his compelling new novel, in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and where not only does disease stalk the streets but a serial killer of prostitutes is also on the loose.
It’s a veritable Dante’s Hell and into it steps a reserved Canadian academic, the quixotically named Diligence Matheson, who is searching for the bones of a forgotten apostle, Simon the Zealot, rumoured to be buried somewhere in Humberside. Accompanying him is his bodyguard, a somewhat morally ambiguous, tormented ex-soldier Mesach Stone, who turns detective in the hunt for the murdered women.
This is a historical novel not for the faint hearted, with more than a slice of Gothic horror about it, blended skilfully with all essential elements of a traditional crime thriller. While the cholera-infected bodies pile up in the city’s mortuaries, brutal acts are taking place in its dimly lit alleyways, and out in the countryside there is no respite as horrific crimes are being committed in the hidden underground passageways of a stately home. Blood, gore, guts, bones, rats, asylums, séances – they’re all here in this viscerally, but superbly, descriptive book.
A strong stomach is needed then, but there is much to admire in D.M. Mark’s storytelling, characterisation, and evocation of time and place. The quest for the apostle’s bones is a neat idea, because Simon the Zealot is the mystery figure in Jesus Christ’s circle, referenced only four times in the New Testament, with much later dispute about how he died: something of an empty canvas then for the imaginative writer to daub on, with the idea of Simon (a known wanderer) travelling from the Middle East to Humberside not entirely fantastical.
However, the Dan Brown-like quest for the bones takes a back seat from early on as our chief protagonists Matheson and Stone, once they have left the plague-ridden city, are drawn into the strange world of the eccentric Lord Ansell and his foppish, artistic son Phillip. The Ansell’s country pile, Randall House, is a ‘place of high ceilings and wrought iron, of great shuttered windows and doors hewn from ancient trees … Stone spent his childhood in a home like this and remembers nothing majestic, only cold stairways and cobwebs, unlit rooms and the scent of emptiness.’ The soldier/detective’s premonition that something is not quite right about this forbidding environment and its strange inhabitants – masters and servants – turns out to be all too horrifically accurate.
I found echoes of Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jane Eyre in The Zealot’s Bones – along with pages from a Hammer Horror film script. But derivative though it might be – and what books aren’t? – D.M. Mark has his very own vivid style. Terror and torture abound, the body count rises, and tension grips right up to the pulsating denouement. And the mystery of the bones is solved – or is it?
The Zealot’s Bones is published on 21 September 2017.
Roger Hermiston writes history books that are underpinned by rigorous scholarship, enhanced by a journalist’s eye and driven by exciting storytelling. His latest, All Behind You, Winston – Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45, tells the story of the most remarkable gathering of leaders in modern history: the war ministry that saw the country through its darkest – and finest – hour.