The Black Hand

The Black Hand by Will Thomas. This series is another one of my favorites (I know. I’ve got lots of them, but really, it is). The setting of 1880s London would not be my first choice, but the characters are so good and the plots filled with such mystery and action that one has trouble putting the books down for any reason. In their fifth adventure, Cyrus Barker, a private enquiry agent, and Thomas Llewelyn, his apprentice, accept a commission from the Home Office to repel the attempts of the Mafia to enter the London underworld. The Sicilians are fighting with other Italians for control of the docks and have begun terrorizing other businesses around the city by following through on the threats described in their Black Hand notes. As is sometimes the case, Barker and Llewelyn find themselves working with both Scotland Yard and with various established criminals who want to see this even more dangerous foe sent back to Palermo and kept off English shores.

Barker was the son of a missionary and a one-time adventurer in China and it is this combination of East and West that makes him such an interesting character. He owns a prize Pekingese dog and is master of several martial arts, yet also attends the Baptist Tabernacle each week and voraciously reads the daily newspapers, ignoring all other light pastimes. He is quite stern with everyone around him, speaks only when necessary, and hides his expressions behind dark glasses. Yet the secondary characters he has surrounded himself with: the French chef Etienne Dummolard, the Jewish butler Jacob Maccabee, the office clerk Jeremy Jenkins and especially Llewelyn are all devoted to him. Even after five books, readers who think they know what to expect from him still find him mysterious. The author builds interest by introducing new facets of Barker’s background and current life in each tale. The current book finally brings followers of the series face-to-face with the woman in Barker’s life, previously only described as “the Widow,” in whose presence Barker’s personality undergoes quite a change.

Given the setting and the private investigations business in which Barker and Llewelyn are engaged, several critics have compared the pair to Holmes and Watson, but I have never felt that there was much similarity between Conan Doyle’s works and these stories. Holmes and Watson are by no means sedate, but the action here seems much more furious. Holmes relies heavily on his intellectual abilities to work out his challenging puzzles and frequently uses disguises to infiltrate criminal organizations and gather information whereas Barker seems to seek confrontations head on. I actually feel that Barker shares more in common with Boris Akunin’s mysterious Russian Erast Fandorin. The supporting characters are completely different as there is no mention of any Barker siblings like Mycroft Holmes and Dummolard, Maccabee and Jenkins cannot be compared to Mrs. Hudson. Further, Watson and Llewelyn are even more dissimilar as one is a trained doctor with military experience and seemingly happy with his medical career and the other is a convicted felon (with extenuating circumstances) training to become an investigator in the future.

One nice feature of each book that I wish were more common in others is the inclusion of a brief author interview at the end describing how the book came together and the research involved.


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