The Inquiry Agent — William King

A not quite noir fiction this is the story of a man trying to make the best of very hard times. All the elements of the standard detective story are here: A good guy trying to make it in a bad world, no breaks but bad breaks, and not a soul to lean on. Nineteenth century London makes those cliché’s work.

No matter the century, a PI has to have some luck, some skill, and a whole lot of willingness to sidestep the finer points of the legal system to do his job. Denzel Washington was pretty good example of the borderline ant-hero in Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, a couple of years ago. You sympathize with the character because he knows the difference between right and wrong, and he knows the world is not the place to divide things into such simple terms.

In a world where one wrong step can lead to the poor house, the penal colonies or the gallows, the choices a man makes highlight all the things a private detective faces. Here we become acquainted with a beleaguered Inquiry Agent, a little run down at the heels, trying to make a living and remain on the honest side of the law. I expected this to be a story with few surprises; a pleasant enough fiction of criminals and their undoing, and of heroes making the leg work pay off for a happy ending. A tale of trying to make it in a desperate city at a desperate time the twists are dark and winding like the alleys and passages of the slums of London. Places and faces our hero knows only too well from his days on the newly minted London police force.

In this case, Mr. John Brodie is on his own, trying to put a roof over the head of his children and food on the table. The loss of his wife and some of his children to consumption, weighs on him as heavily as the bill he owes to the butcher, the baker and the doctor treating his daughter for the same disease. He has a son who tries to be strong at a tender age, and a housekeeper who looks after them all. His hardened sense of morality plays a part in his need to turn a blind but protective eye to all manner of characters inhabiting the hopeless warrens of a Dickensian urban landscape.

Hired by a very rich man to recover items lost in a house-breaking, Brodie is instructed not to accost the culprits for arrest, but only to regain the missing documents. There is more to the story than the chase, but in the chase lie the details. It isn’t until much later that motivations are divulged and the final hook is placed, revealing what may or may not be the most obvious element of the plot of the story but certainly the cause of much of Brodie’s soul-searching, and his final solution to the problems he faces.