As every punter knows, even impeccable lineage and short odds can't guarantee success at the Epsom Derby. According to DJ Taylor's 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.
When down-at-heel Lincolnshire farmer, Mr Davenant, acquires a lithe black horse called Tiberius, he doesn't realise he's bagged a winner. Eager to exploit the squire'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 where much of the plot is hatched.
A long time champion of the 19th-century novel and biographer of Thackeray, Taylor is at ease with Victorianese – resurrecting the ghosts of classics past while making the territory his own. He's fictionalised this period before, and readers of his earlier mystery Kept will welcome the return of Captain McTurk of Scotland Yard, a stolid detective who sniffs out chicanery at every turn.
While the action may be largely set in the drawing rooms of genteel Pimlico and smart Belgravia, it's Taylor's depiction of Davenant's estate 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 daughter, Evie, a pale girl with a quivering head whose red eyes remind her father of a rat's.
When Derby day finally dawns and the plotters assemble, Taylor gives us (and McTurk) a run of our money. Drawing inspiration from William Frith's 1858 Derby Day canvas, the race course is captured in arresting painterly detail - "the sway and eddy of fifty thousand shoulders, the flashes of light as the sun catches on the raised opera glasses in the grandstand".
This is a fictional world in which daughters are ready to bump off their fathers, husbands to exploit their wives, and everyone is happy to chance their assets on the wheel of fortune. It's a novel that will keep you gripped until the very last furlong.