After a career as one of the preeminent horror writers of the 1990s and a break which lasted for several years, Robert McCammon has come back with a vengeance, completely reinventing his career, with an impressive series of historical mysteries set in the American colonies in the early 18th century. The stories center on the adventures of legal clerk and freelance investigator Matthew Corbett which began in Speaks the Nightbird, an extraordinary novel which McCammon had not intended to make into a series, but he liked the setting and the characters so much that after making a few chronological revisions he followed it with The Queen of Bedlam and now with a third installment in Mister Slaughter.
Mister Slaughter. Continues the story of Corbett’s work for the Herald Agency based out of New York City, working in partnership with the gruff but formidable Hudson Greathouse. This book picks up directly where The Queen of Bedlam ends, with Corbett and Greathouse taking a commission to retrieve notorious mass murderer Tyranthus Slaughter from a madhouse in Pennsylvania and bring him to New York for transport to England to face justice. Of course, the task of retrieving and delivering the abhorrent Slaughter doesn’t work out as expected, and the story developes into a grueling pursuit through frontier settlements, indian villages and the centers of colonial civilization, uncovering a shadowy criminal network of which Slaughter is just a part.
The story of Mister Slaughter is engaging and moves along quickly, but what really makes the book stand out is McCammon’s attention to developing interesting and complex characters, including his exploration of the nuances of the historical environment which plays a very large role in making the novels in this series as interesting and unique as they are. Corbett gets a lot of development, with his flaws and his virtues placed in striking contrast. He’s heroic and capable yet flawed and troubled at the same time. The book is very much a journey towards a new level of maturity for Corbett as a character. Slaughter also makes an unexpected kind of villain who turns out to be both more and less than you expect him to be by the time the book is done. There’s room in the book for a couple of interesting subplots, some curious secondary characters and a bit of a surprise ending which clearly sets up the next book in the series.
All of this is held together by McCammon’s masterful writing skills, which have evolved and adapted to his material, with undertones of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving which give the novel an authentic period feel which should make better known and well established historical novelists jealous. Though I heartily recommend Mister Slaughter both as a work of historical fiction and as a mystery novel, I have to warn squeamish readers that there are scenes and situations which are quite graphic and disturbing on the level of the works of Richard Laymon and Clive Barker and if that sort of gore and violence bothers you, read something else. As for me, I’m looking forward to McCammon’s next novel of adventure and mystery in Matthew Corbett’s world.