Derby Day, By DJ Taylor

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The Independent Culture

As every punter knows, even impeccable lineage and short odds can't guarantee success at the Epsom Derby. According to DJ Taylor's new novel, it was ever thus. In a Victorian melodrama surrounding a clever betting sting, Taylor portrays a society in the midst of preparing itself for a new kind of front-runner.

Propelling Taylor's tale is a black racehorse called Tiberius. The property of Mr Davenant, a down-at-heel Lincolnshire squire, this lithe outsider soon has aristocratic sets talking. Eager to exploit Davenant's good fortune in time for Derby Day are two London ne'er-do-wells: Mr Happerton, a wearer of top-boots and "equine pins", and his ill-favoured associate, Captain Raff, habitué of the newly established Blue Riband Club.

Taylor, a long-time champion of the 19th-century novel and biographer of Thackeray, is no slouch when it comes to historical recreation and literary pastiche. He has fictionalised this period before, and readers of Kept will welcome the return of Captain McTurk of Scotland Yard, a stolid detective who sniffs out chichanery at every turn. As in his first mystery, Taylor's grasp of Victorianese is playfully spot-on - his characters emoting with all the relish of a Trollopian lawyer or Dickensian thief.

The action may be largely set in the drawing rooms of genteel Pimlico and smart Belgravia, but it's Taylor's depiction of Mr Davenant's estate in Lincolnshire that lingers. A "Gothick" mansion surrounded by "mouldering piles of beet and turnip", Scroop Hall is a dismal establishment where the wind whistles through the frames sounding "uncannily like a human voice". It's also home to Davenant's unfortunate daughter Evie - a preternaturally pale creature with a quivering head and pinkish eyes that remind her father of a rat's.

As Derby Day approaches, Taylor reins in his plotters and race card-toting swells with calm control. While Mr Davenant is swindled out of his horse and ancestral home, a jewellery heist enables Happerton to underwrite a series of bets on Tiberius's rivals.

Drawing inspiration from William Frith's popular 1858 canvas of Derby Day, Taylor's description of the event itself makes for a painterly set piece, capturing "the sway and eddy of fifty thousand shoulders, the flashes of light as the sun catches on the raised opera glasses in the grandstand".

Taylor's second "Victorian Mystery" reads like a 19th-century great with the extraneous detail filleted out. His portrait of mid-century folk, however, is not an edifying one. Daughters are ready to bump off fathers, husbands to exploit wives, and everyone is happy to chance their assets on the wheel of fortune. While sentimentality might take a tumble, Taylor's novel keeps us gripped until the last furlong.

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