The Angel of Highgate (Titan, 2015) is novelist Vaughn Entwistle’s third historical novel. Following Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (2015) and The Dead Assassin (2014), both from the The Paranormal Casebooks of Arthur Conan Doyle series, The Angel of Highgate is a precursor to The Revenant of Thraxton Hall but is not part of the Casebooks series.
A gothic novel with touches of crime and the supernatural, The Angel of Highgate follows the love affair of Lord Geoffrey Thraxton, a dishonorable man-about-town, and a mysterious woman he rescues from grave robbers one night in Highgate Cemetery. Set in 1859 London, Thraxton and his best friend and confidant Algernon Hyde-Davies move in and out of British high society. Along the way, they return to Highgate Cemetery, opium dens, brothels, and visit the depths of Victorian rookeries, whose crime syndicates make Dickens’ Fagin and Artful Dodger seem sincere and innocent. Accompanying Thraxton, Hyde-Davies, and the mysterious woman is a cast of colorful characters: embittered literary critic Augustus Skinner, dodgy physician Silas Garrette, Kew Gardens caretaker Mister Greenley, and chief “mobsman” Mordecai Fowler and his “leftenants,” Barnabus Snudge and Walter Crynge.
After an opening chapter narrating Thraxton’s peculiar sexual escapades, the plot’s driving action begins when Thraxton insults and is then challenged to a duel by Augustus Skinner, who had lambasted Thraxton’s recently-published collection of poetry in the Blackwell Gazette. The duel and Skinner’s resulting injuries and care by Garrette provide one strand of Entwistle’s narrative. The other two strands involve Thraxton’s pursuit of the mysterious woman and Fowler and his gang as they pursue “toffs,” rich men like Thraxton and Hyde-Davies, and other easy targets on the streets of London. By the last third of the novel, we see these strands come together in two chase scenes.
The premise of the novel is interesting and certainly fits the gothic genre, as Entwistle places characters in Highgate Cemetery where they see ghosts and in séances that depict automatic writing sessions alongside opium dens and other run-down, deviant areas of London such as the rookery where we find Fowler’s crew. The majority of the novel is written in standard English that clearly illustrate the streets of mid-Victorian London, such as this description of Whitechapel: “despite the ramshackle nature of the area, on nearly every corner stood a brightly illuminated pub or gin house bursting with light and raucous laughter” (202). Descriptions such as these give readers a sense of the landscape Thraxton and Hyde-Davies move through in their adventures.
Despite clear descriptions of mid-nineteenth-century London, some of Entwistle’s vocabulary choices, like the description of “ectoplasmic mists” in the opening paragraph, or his use of the Cockney dialect for Fowler, his men, and minor street figures such as prostitutes, Fowler, and his men, jar the reader. Though the book runs a rather fast-paced 375 pages, the first 200 pages spend too much time on the separate strands of the narrative trying to develop the characters, often in backstory that is not necessarily useful. For instance, Mordecai Fowler elaborate childhood history only confirms he has been a horrible person throughout his life, rather than providing motivation for his actions. In the last third of the novel, however, as readers discover how and why the different characters relate to one another and the consequences of those relationships, both the intrigue and interest develop more fully.
On the whole The Angel of Highgate is an enjoyable pleasure read. The first chapter contains some fairly sexually explicit details, during which the sex is consensual, yet that fact is not known until after the sexual encounter. Moreover, there is certainly violence throughout the novel that characters encounter. Readers who enjoy historical fiction set in the mid-Victorian period, gothic novels, and a touch of medical history will find the setting and characters both familiar and interesting. The dubious medical practices of Garrette and the time spent in Highgate expose the illegal interests of some mid-nineteenth-century clinicians.
Danielle Nielsen is Assistant Professor of English at Murray State University where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, professional and technical writing, and British literature.