The Authentic William James by Stephen Gallagher (book review).

September 30, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘The Authentic William James’ is the third in a series of novels about the Crown Chancery detective Sebastian Becker, previously in ‘The Bedlam Detective’ and ‘The Kingdom Of Bones’. Sebastian’s personal story is enmeshed and enlivened by the cases he undertakes crossing continents to solve them.


Wild West ‘cowboy’ William James confesses he set fire to the theatre where his cowboy troupe had been performing is a wanted man. Becker has to find out if he might be insane as the crime has State implications. Following his involvement, he loses track of James until he turns up dead in America. Becker hopes to wrap the case up there and then but there is, of course, more to this than first thought and Becker is unable to let it go. Sebastian is torn between the desire to wrap up the case and actually get justice.

Previously a Pinkerton agent, Sebastian has a foot on both continents. Living in London with his sister-in-law as housekeeper, he is sadly widowed and bears the heavy responsibility of alienating his father-in-law from both his daughters. When a chance comes up to repair the damage, he is eager to let Frances, the surviving sister, build bridges but, by doing this, he might miss out on the chance of some happiness. Definitely a proto-feminist, she is acutely aware of her own status and the restrictions it brings.

Period detail of both pre-Great War London and the amazing almost Wild West of 1913 here is a wonderful exposition of the environment of the travelling showman, the English cowboy. This phenomenon was due the original and ‘authentic’ William Cody or Wild Bill who popularised the myth of the cowboy which then became the version that Hollywood took as its own.

Vividly evoked, this intense and hand-to-mouth existence of William James and the responsibility for his extended family sees him make a series of mistakes that lead to the deaths and his flight.

This long forgotten world is brought to gaudy life by the characters that inhabit it. There is much to admire here, as the tightly wound plot spins us round constantly and shoots with dead-eye precision towards its conclusion. There is so much incidental detail that it is a joy to read and manages to sit lightly in a way that Dan Brown never could. The links and movements and comparison between the troubles of the respective families involved are masterful and I’m so in love with Sebastian I’ve ordered the two previous novels.

It’s always great to happen upon a new series of novels that is worth investing time in and this is one of the wonders of reading and trying out different genres. This sort of falls into the nostalgic with a twist Sherlock Holmes market and it also feels like a little spoonful of history that goes down like sweet medicine. I’m in awe of writers who can create these mini-worlds, whether in the past or the future of even out of this world and Gallagher proves time and again this is his talent.

Sue Davies

July 2016

(pub: Subterranean Press. 316 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-779-0)

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