I love Bernard Cornwell’s work, mostly the Richard Sharpe series, the Grail Quest series and the Warlord series but here comes a wonderful standalone book, The Gallows Thief. It is set in Georgian England, about 1815, when hanging judges kept the gallows filled. The penalty for almost all crimes, including petty theft, was hanging or transportation to one of the Crown’s colonies. The book opens with a gruesome hanging at Newgate prison of a young girl accused of stealing her mistress’ pearls. She repeatedly protests her innocence but the prevailing wisdom of the time was – if you were accused, you were guilty, and so most people were convicted, and if convicted you most surely were guilty and then hanged.
Our protagonist, Rider Sandman, formerly a Captain in his Majesties Army and a hero of Waterloo, has fallen on hard times. Raised in comparatively wealthy circumstances, Rider finds on his return to England that his father has lost all his money by speculation and has also defrauded other investors, including many of society’s elite. Rider has assumed the financial care of his mother and sister and is trying to pay the tradesmen’s debts. About his only source of income comes from his consummate skill as a cricketeer, but that is not a reliable source of income and he’s too proud to play with others who deliberately throw games for money. He is also too proud to continue his engagement to the love of his life, breaking it off because he can’t support her. She’s an heiress which makes it even worse!
Into these circumstances, comes an offer from the Home Secretary, one of the four great offices in Britain’s political system (similar to our Director of Homeland Security.) He tells Rider that a young man, Charles Corday, who’s been sentenced to the gallows, has a powerful connection – his mother is a seamstress to the Queen, who has asked the Home Secretary to look into it. He wants Rider to find Charley guilty so he can tell the Queen the matter has been investigated.
Rider is an independent thinker, though, and he quickly finds information that contradicts the prisoner’s guilt. He has some help along the way - his aristocratic friend Lord Alexander Plaidell, a fetching actress named Sally who lives in the same lodgings, an ex-soldier who converts to his side, mostly because of Sally and even Sally’s brother, a notorious highwaymen named Robin Hood! They have only one week to prove Charlie’s innocence and it comes down to the very last minute, with a dramatic, desperate ride through London ending under the gallows.
The narrator is Sean Barrett, and he’s a master of voices. After a minute or two you forget it’s just one man reading, as the mix of accents and genders are amazing. You can believe in the cheeky Cockney actress as well as the effete aristocrat and brutish gallows keeper. I really prefer this type of narrator to the monotone affected by some others. If you like period stories from the early 19th century, give this a listen.