Rose by Martin Cruz Smith

RoseMartin Cruz Smith is probably best known for his stunning series of novels featuring Russian investigator, Arkady Renko. The series began with the award-winning Gorky Park set in the Brezhnev era and has continued over the years authentically capturing the atmosphere within Russia during and after the break-up of the Soviet Union. World-weary Renko doggedly pursues the truth despite the barriers put in his way by corrupt officials.
‘Rose’ isn’t a novel in the Renko series. In some ways it could hardly be more different, but there are similarities. The main difference is obvious – rather than being set in modern-day Russia, this is set in Wigan in 1872. Once again MCS has clearly done his research and the reader is carried back convincingly to the heavily industrial Victorian scene where most of the population work in appalling conditions in the coal mines or cotton mills – except, of course, for the rich owners of the mines and mills.
The central character is Jonathan Blair; born in Wigan, father unknown. His mother and her toddler son boarded a ship for America. During the crossing she either jumped, or fell, to her death in the ocean, so young Jonathan arrived in his new country as an orphan. After an unusual upbringing he became a mining engineer and has spent recent years in Africa where his close relationship with the native population made him unpopular with his colonial masters.
He arrives in Wigan suffering with malaria and desperate to return to Africa, for reasons that become clear. He needs the help of Lord Hannay, who is also a bishop and head of one of the most powerful families in England with extensive mining interests in Africa and Wigan. That help comes at a price. Hannay will only help if Blair finds John Maypole, a young cleric engaged to Hannay’s daughter, who has disappeared without trace.
Blair finds himself having to act as a reluctant detective – and this where the similarity with the Renko novels lies. Blair acts just like a Victorian version of Renko, showing the same persistence to discover the truth. He is treated with suspicion and hostility by everyone, even Hannay’s daughter. Everyone that is, except for the mysterious Rose, one of the controversial pit girls who shock society by wearing trousers and doing men’s work sorting coal. They are accepted by the pit owners because they work for less pay than men.
Even without the intriguing story line and the strong characterisation, this book would be worth reading because of the vivid capturing of working life below ground with the constant threat of explosion and roof fall, and of the injustice of the class system.
Another gem from Martin Cruz Smith. It is available from Amazon in hardback (secondhand), paperback, Kindle and audio formats.