Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011
Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.
The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, The Devils’ Mask doesn’t at all convey a sense of geography to readers unfamiliar with the city, and, at the least, a map of Bristol and the road between Bristol and Bath should have been included; without it I wouldn’t blame anyone for becoming both lost and discouraged from further exploration.
The elements of the narrative are quickly and graphically introduced: the narrator Inigo Bright (a lawyer with artistic leanings, just like the author himself) is somehow different from his father and brothers; he is charged with getting to the root of discrepancies in the activities of the Bristol-based Western Trading Company; he keeps being warned off further investigations, not least by being attacked and imprisoned; he encounters a series of shocking murders, all associated with his investigations of a suspicious trading vessel; he finally discovers the truth which — surprise, surprise — concerns his family’s involvement with slavery and the aftermath of its abolition. Running through the first-person narrative is a parallel tale of young West African women holed up, first in a slaver, then in an underground place of confinement. The final denouement only confirms what we knew from the opening pages, and so is no real mystery; the only mystery is why the young lawyer took so long to work out the obvious truth about his origins.
This was a promising proposition, a novel exploring the ramifications of Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade appearing not long after the 200th anniversary of slavery’s abolition in most of the British Empire. Sadly, The Devil’s Mask doesn’t live up to this promise. There is a catalogue of failings which weaken the impact of this historical detective fiction. First is the narrator, who is a weak and vacillating character much given to introspection but apparently caring very little about anybody or anything; as a result the reader scarcely cares about him. Second is the pace of the action: incidents lasting a few seconds are described in loving but lengthy detail, while descriptions that would give us a sense of place and time are skimped. Third, the descriptive passages are often inordinately convoluted, with pretentious word-painting such as of sunlight reflecting or not reflecting on water and apparently significant musings on seagulls. On top of that, dialogue and vocabulary were largely in modern English, heightening my sense of historical incongruity; this was not aided by the otherwise attractive book cover, based on a Victorian photograph of a half century or more later, showing the hazy outlines of St Mary Redcliffe church (actually not mentioned in the novel) behind a ship’s riggings and a young man, whom we are meant to identify as the hirsute hero, in mid-19th century clothing.
In short, this tale required very heavy editing, if not re-writing, pre-publication. It could have been an enjoyable and a real page-turner, but as it stands only a sense of duty could persuade this reviewer to complete it. It is a shame, as I really wanted to like this novel.