[The Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman’s News, 18th August, 1893]

Leslie Scase uses this real tragedy, I found a newspaper report online, as the jumping off point for this historical crime novel, although the timing has been slightly altered for the story. Chwarae teg (fair play), this thriller is an entertaining romp, light on graphic detail and violence and strong on local flavour. Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow makes the most of its historical Welsh valleys setting. The Pontypridd of the 1890s reimagined here is a growing industrial centre with iron and tin works and it’s the gateway to Rhondda’s coalfields. Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow is a decent murder mystery and because there’s more than one strand to the story it will keep you guessing to the end. The Valleys location for the story might be a bit unusual for a crime novel, but as the author points out in his postscript, crime existed outside London in the 1890s too, and the growing industrial populations were outstripping the police resources to manage them. Although, of course, most of the crime was low level; drunkenness, prostitution, fighting in the streets, petty theft, all of which are part of the backdrop to this story.

If you live in London I suppose you’re used to novels being set fairly close to where you live but there are not many thrillers set in Pontypridd, South Wales, which is ten miles from my home – I couldn’t resist this novel for that reason. As a local I enjoyed the detail, buildings that still exist but may not be being used for the same purpose these days and the ones that have come and gone, for example. That draw won’t apply to most readers but the descriptions of the town, the work, religion, and the daily lives will interest lovers of historical crime novels.

It all begins with a murder in the River Taff that will escape detection, at least for the time being. The drowning man accepts his end, he has no more fight in him, he prays as his life slips away. The dead body floats down the river until it snags and sinks as the man’s belt hooks on a branch, it is now hidden from view…

Spring, 1893. The train is on its way to New Bridge, now renamed Pontypridd from Cardiff. In one carriage are three drunken men discussing rugby, a woman with three children, and an older gent looking to pass the time in conversation with a quiet man studiously ignoring his neighbour’s questions. It’s the quiet man that interests us, he carries no identification, only cash and he is heading to Pontypridd for a job. The train derails, the people in the carriage are thrown around, bumping into objects and each other, for a moment everything is still and then the carriage upends. People are thrown clear from the train, necks are broken, limbs severed, twelve are left dead, including the woman and two of her children. The quiet man has badly broken his leg, other injuries are not so visible. The local tin works mobilises a rescue operation as the hospitals and police are alerted. The quiet man is barely alive when they get him to the infirmary at Pontypridd workhouse. He dies during the night, his only possession an inscribed pocket watch…

Spring, 1895. Thomas Chard arrives in Pontypridd, there seem to be pubs at every turn; The Clarence, The Half Moon, and The Red Lion right outside the station. The noise of the streets, the bustle of people is overwhelming and Chard would like a drink before he reports for duty tomorrow morning. Superintendent Jones feels the new inspector should not have ended his first night in town in the gutter, even though he was breaking up a fight, it’s not a great start. Chard’s duties are mainly administrative except he will be responsible for major crimes and those involving proper gentlewomen, both of which are rare. However, as Chard is still familiarising himself with his new beat a body turns up in the river, it’s been there some time…

As Chard investigates it appears that the man may have been murdered although his identity is a mystery. Then Chard uncovers a surprising connection with the quiet man who died in the infirmary after the train wreck two years before.

Scase paints a vivid picture of the late nineteenth century industrial town, both the lives of the poor and the rich, the town is both prosperous and a den of poverty. The streets are teeming with life; as are the brothels, pubs, and the gambling clubs. New hopefuls arrive for work every day, including immigrants, among them Italians. The policing of a community where the rules are not yet hard and fast is mostly reactive, brutal and at times desperate, as the small force tries to cope with the growing population. Chard is new to the art of solving murder. Colloquialisms and the Welsh language are used sparingly to set the tone and lightly colour the dialogue. The mystery itself is layered and entertaining, it gathers pace and the denouement is satisfying. Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow may be the opener for a Thomas Chard series (speculation on my part).

Published by Welsh independent Gomer Press with the financial support of the Welsh Book Council.

Paul Burke 3/3

Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow by Leslie Scase
Gomer Press 9781785622885 pbk Mar 2019