(2021) Jas Treadwell, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, hrdbk, 456pp, ISBN 978-1-529-34732-6
“Ah reader – what mysteries you shall compel us to expose! Will you step but a little further into the churchyard?” From the gold embossed cover of the book, with its 18th Century typeface, to the quaint writing style and use of footnotes, Jas Treadwell has worked hard to create an authentic feel to his tale of Thomas Peach, a gentleman of ‘modest means’.
From the start, the narrator sounds like a collective – “We transport you to the year seventeen eighty five.” There is a distance between the storyteller(s) and the reader, often the former consulting the latter directly as to what they might think or feel about the notorious events that happen. This successfully creates the atmosphere of an 18th Century novel, but it often stands in the way of a total engagement with the story.
So, to the plot. Thomas Peach, with no money and a sick wife, moves to Somerset to care for her, though she’s never seen in public and people begin to think she might not even exist, or that he’s imprisoned her to get his hands on her inheritance. Things get stranger when he comes across a young woman supposedly demonically possessed. With lips and mouth stained a ‘deep, dark red’ that’s more than likely, but he disagrees with the learned men of Bristol who want the demon exorcised, and soon she’s under his protection. But then secrets from his mysterious past in London catch up with him and he finds himself in danger. And then there’s the demon…
The Infernal Riddle is a challenging read, and not least because of its length. It imitates the style of an 18th Century gothic novel, down to the language, tone and cadence. It’s cleverly done, and the ‘necromantic spirits’ who narrate the story add depth and colour to the storytelling. It is basically one long, slow reveal, using beautifully crafted language and contextual references. That said, it is also entertaining, often amusing and definitely intriguing. I particularly liked the way I became totally immersed in this 18th century world – the author’s attention to tone and detail is impressive.
‘Jas Treadwell’ is a pseudonym, described in the flyleaf as: "A phantom – a cipher – A mere name, assumed like a mask! and signifying, nothing at all." Apparently, ‘Jas Treadwell’ is previously published under another name but whose identity is being kept anonymous for this book. So, dear reader, shall we surmise that he or she is “of no importance, nor significance to any person in all the world,” as Thomas Peach describes himself. Or …?
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