by Alastair Sim
Cover Artist: Design: David Baldeosingh Rotstein
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312621698
Date: 14 September 2010 List Price $23.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In 1865, the four Bothwell-Scott brothers comprise the wealthiest, most notorious family in Edinburg, Scotland. Each brother is cruel and corrupt in his respective occupation, which involves either land holdings, the military, the law, or religion. The oldest brother, the lecherous William Bothwell-Scott, the 7th Duke of Dornoch, is missing. Inspector Archibald Allerdyce and his faithful sidekick, the hulking Sergeant Hector McGillivray, are assigned to locate him.
After searching numerous seedy establishments, the officers discover that William has been shot and thrown into a well. Soon, the other brothers are stalked and murdered by an unknown assassin. Allerdyce's friends fall under suspicion and one of them is imprisoned. In order to prevent more bloodshed, Allerdyce, who was once an unbeliever in supernatural forces, must put his faith in God to aid him in finding the person seeking revenge against the Bothwell-Scott family.
Historical mystery fans are going to love Alastair Sim's The Unbelievers. Moving at a fast clip, this novel has a creepy, atmospheric setting, gruesome killings, treacherous villains, cryptic messages, and plenty of heart-pounding shocks. This novel provides a harsh, realistic look at Victorian life. Some scenes are extremely unnerving. The judicial system is rather quick to judge and execute by hanging. For example, Allerdyce is forever haunted by the public hanging of a ten-year-old boy who killed his abusive father.
In this superbly crafted mystery, Alastair Sim takes the reader from the grandeur of Dalcorn House to the depraved world of brothels, betting arenas where dogs kill rats, and gay bars such as the Sailor's Arms. In his search for truth, Inspector Allerdyce must infiltrate a union meeting, walk for miles through freezing rain and wind to find a hermit living in a hovel on the Scottish heath, and travel to a school for the deaf and mute. He must endure the pain of visiting a friend in Calton Jail and watching a loved one suffer with deadly cholera.
The hero of the novel, Inspector Allerdyce, is a good soul who has suffered terrible hardships. When his first wife Helen died during childbirth, he lost his faith in God. He never could totally commit to his second wife Margaret for fear of losing her; instead, he sought solace in the arms of a high class prostitute Antonia - a beautiful woman with many secrets. However, despite his flaws, Inspector Allerdyce is a man who seeks the truth no matter what it may cost him. Towards the end of the novel, he is determined to become a more devoted husband and father.
The Unbelievers has some of the sickest villains I've ever read in a mystery. Chief among them are the aforementioned Bothwell-Scott brothers. The oldest, William, is a pervert who slept with anything that walked on two legs while married to his cousin Josephine; a land baron, he forced thousands of peasants out of their homes during the harshest of winters. Brigadier Frederick Bothwell-Scott, an alcoholic, neglected his duties of distributing military supplies and caused thousands of soldiers to perish during the war with the Russians. The Reverend Arthur Bothwell-Scott doesn't believe in God. The Honorable George Bothwell-Scott, a former lawyer, is obsessed with photographing spirits of the dead.
All four brothers are quite insane and the reader won't feel much sympathy for them when they are stalked by the killer. Because they brought so much pain and suffering on mankind, the suspects are many. Another noteworthy villain is the homosexual Inspector Jarvis who won't hesitate to falsely accuse a fellow officer in hopes of getting promoted. Neither does he have qualms about sending an innocent man to prison. Unfortunately, he seems to be protected by his superiors. There is much police corruption. Life for the common man was difficult in Victorian Scotland. Reading this novel will make one appreciate our present day society.
Believe me when I tell you that The Unbelievers is one of the best historical mysteries I've read this year. It has an ending that is quite disturbing. I won't be forgetting this one for a long time. The killer was truly deplorable. I hope to see Inspector Allerdyce - if he fully recovers from his ordeals - and Sergeant McGillivray in a sequel. Other historical mysteries which I highly recommend are: D.E. Johnsonís The Detroit Electric Scheme, Irene Flemings' The Edge of Ruin and Charles Todd's A Duty to the Dead.