Series fiction has been hit-or-miss for me over the years. On one hand, it can feel like coming home when a favorite character is featured in a new book (which is how I felt about F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack for most of his series); on the other hand it’s all too easy to get burned by giving yourself to a series. I’ve been fortunate in some cases to have various characters not work from the get-go (for example, I tried the first couple books in John Sandford’s Prey series, and they didn’t click). Then there are the instances like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which was very uneven for me (I loved some installments, but was bored by others). Worst of all is when I’ve invested dozens of hours reading a series that I fell in love with early on, only to get 8-10 books deep and find that things were growing stale and borrrrrrrring (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time).
[The book that not only caused me to stop reading The Wheel of Time series, but also showed me that it was OK to stop reading a book that I wasn’t enjoying. For that, at least, I owe it a debt of gratitude.]
And then, once or twice in a lifetime, the heavens shine down upon you with a series that is absolute perfection. To this point, no series in my forty years has given me as much reading pleasure, nor been as consistently excellent, as Robert McCammon’s Matthew Corbett books. Set in colonial America, the stories focus on a young law clerk (Corbett) who finds himself embroiled in strange goings-on in various locales. The first book, Speaks the Nightbird, details a case in which a woman stands accused of witchcraft and is facing execution for a string of bad luck in the town of Fount Royal. In its follow-up, The Queen of Bedlam, a serial killer has the populace of New York City looking over their shoulders, and Matthew becomes sucked into an investigation that plays to his natural curiosity and detection skills while also earning him some unwanted attention along the way.
Earlier this week I finished the third installment in the series, entitled Mister Slaughter. The story picks up shortly after the events of The Queen of Bedlam, where Matthew finds himself to be a bit of a celebrity due to his work on his previous case (thanks in no small part to his friend Mr. Grigsby — publisher of New York’s newspaper, The Earwig – who likes to drum up readership by sharing tales of Matthew’s exploits). Almost immediately, Matthew and his associate, Hudson Greathouse, take on a new case: transport a man named Tyranthus Slaughter from a nearby mental institution back to New York City so that he can be sent to England and tried for numerous brutal murders he committed. What seems like a simple task ultimately becomes a mess as Slaughter escapes and begins wreaking havoc in nearby communities, doing everything in his power to outrun the men who pursue him.
While the previous books had their share of villains, Tyranthus Slaughter takes evil to a new level. The easiest way to describe Slaughter would be to compare him to Hannibal Lecter, another psychopath who relished torturing and killing people. Yet as I thought about the two characters, I quickly realized the comparison was shallow at best. As devious as Lecter’s character was, Slaughter makes him look like an amateur. Numerous scenes throughout the story showcase a man incapable of conscience or remorse, a man who enjoys breaking people mentally as much as he did physically, almost making a game out of his perversion against humanity. As such, Slaughter is a truly memorable character that will leave readers as breathless as he does angry.
The Corbett series showcases McCammon’s considerable talent when it comes to marrying historical fiction, mystery, and horror into one epic piece of storytelling, and Mister Slaughter was no exception. The characters are fully developed, the fledgling communities during the birth of our nation are fully realized, and the storylines power these tales forward at break-neck speed (an amazing thing to behold when you see the size and scope of these books. Epic fiction, no matter how good, usually contains slow spots; McCammon has not allowed that to happen in Corbett’s tales to this point, which is a truly marvelous feat).
My gripes about the book are fairly minor in nature. First, and a true nitpick, is that food and clothing are described in great detail. This is a common pitfall in epic works, for whatever reason, and not one that enhances a story in my opinion. There are cases when clothing may be important in the description of a character – such as Lord Cornbury in these tales, who is a man that dresses like a woman – but overall I don’t need a blow-by-blow assessment of what hat, shirt, pants, shoes, and stockings a character is wearing each day of the week. Second, and on a bigger scale, I didn’t like how Slaughter escaped from Matthew and Greathouse. Both men are intelligent and very good at their job, so it didn’t seem realistic that they would be duped so easily by Slaughter. I wish there had been a different way for Slaughter to achieve his freedom. Ultimately, it didn’t really take away from the story, but a little more creativity would have worked better for me.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Mister Slaughter, finding it to be a very worthwhile addition to the series. I give the book a 9 out of 10, and can’t wait to read the fourth installment, entitled The Providence Rider, very soon.
The hardcover, published by Subterranean Press, is currently out of print (although copies can be found on the secondary market). However, an e-book version is available for $6.99, which is a steal for such a great story. Please note, again, that this is the third book in the series. If you haven’t read any of the Corbett novels yet, start with Speaks the Nightbird and follow that up with The Queen of Bedlam. Finer storytelling you will not find.
Until we meet again…