The book intrigues every one’s fancy to an extent. The Whispering Gallery is one of the reads leaving many questions still answered. Who is the man, fell from the gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral killing a priest? Did he fall or was he pushed? Or worse still, did he commit suicide? Fortunately for John Steadman, reporter with the Daily News, he’s in St Paul’s when the incident happens, waiting to propose to his girlfriend. Steadman jumps at such a great story and investigates by knocking on doors, interviewing people and making the most of his policeman friend Matt.
But as well as this investigation, Steadman has also come to the attention of a sadistic mystery murderer who is systematically murdering women and sending body parts to Steadman with coded messages connected to saints’ days. It’s rather scary. Although the murderer ultimately plans to kill Steadman, he continues to investigate and report his successes in his newspaper to nail the murderer.
Sanderson beautifully captures 1930s London, trapped in an oppressive heat wave and pulls the reader into a world of gruesome murders and a sexual underworld where the police seem to be hand in glove with criminals. The final scenes are not for the faint-hearted but, as a fan of crime novels and thrillers, I lapped it up, unwilling to put the book down until I saw it go last.
The ginger-haired hack’s previous adventures in Snow Hill saw him turn over a brothel, make enemies of the local police over corruption. This time, on a pavement-crackingly hot day in the summer of 1937, Steadman is waiting to pop the question to his best girl in the cool of the cathedral when a man jumps from the Whispering Gallery, killing both himself and a passing priest. The newsman in Steadman knows a double bubble of a lead story when he sees it and thoughts of romance are put on hold.
As Steadman struggles with the story, the first of a series of packages arrives at the offices of the Daily News. Each contains the body part of a woman, with a picture of a martyred saint and a threat that Steadman himself will be the final victim.
The whodunnit element is, perhaps, one of the lesser reasons for enjoying this series. The orgies and sadism add piquancy, especially given our erroneous view of a rigid Thirties morality, but the real fascination—and what will keep you waiting for the final part—lies in the relationships that drive the tale. Lizzie is married to Matt but carries a thing for John. John loves Matt but knows he could be happy with Lizzie, Matt loves Lizzie and John but has told John that his love had better not speak its name.
The Whispering Gallery explores many difficult themes love, paedophilia, betrayal and corruption but overall I found that it lacked some believability. From Chapter One there were lines that jarred: “However, he was not in St Paul’s to pray but to propose marriage to Stella, the green-eyed, glossy-haired temptress…”
Steadman is at first portrayed as a man who is good with women there are many women who continually flirt with him throughout the novel but the language used to describe what he feels for Stella comes across as rather florid and forced: “She was his new-found land that he would never get tired of exploring”; “If Stella agreed to be his wife, the two of them would become one, and he would be in paradise.”
From this we move into a different territory with Steadman’s attraction to his friend Matt coming under suspicion from various people at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Sanderson looks at the position of homosexuals during 1930s London and the difficulties that they faced in a sympathetic way.
The loving but maybe not ‘in love’ relationship that Johnny and Matt share is tender and well-drawn and I got the impression that what Sanderson would have preferred would have been to write a novel where his two male protagonists would have a relationship. Instead the Johnny/Stella relationship comes across as what Stella herself accuses Johnny of being merely half-hearted. Overall this is an ambitious novel but unfortunately fails to deliver.
By Syed Wajid Ali