Once novelists get past the pitfall of their second book – reputedly the one hardest to pull off, especially after a widely acclaimed first outing – they tend to take one of two courses: more of the same, which can get a bit dull, or versatility. Anthony Quinn (also this newspaper's film critic) has courageously taken this second route.
He won plaudits and prizes for his debut, The Rescue Man, set in Second World War Liverpool, his home town. And then he did even better with Half of the Human Race, the tale of the turbulent romance between a Suffragette and a cricketer at the start of the 20th century. The Streets sees him branching out, and cements his reputation as an accomplished and challenging novelist.
First, though, the common threads with what has gone before. The Streets contains what has become Quinn's trademark – a complete immersion in the novelist's chosen period, this time the slums of north London in the 1880s. As young reporter David Wildeblood starts work for a high-minded journal, his task is to bring to life in print the daily routines of down-at-heel Somers Town for his campaigning proprietor, Henry Marchmont. This Wildeblood achieves, after a few false starts, right down to their distinctive dialect, and is radicalised in the process.
What has previously made Quinn's writing so compelling is his ability to mesh that total immersion with a compelling human story, and central characters who are so much more than ciphers or cut-outs. It is a trickier than it sounds. Too much social history and readers might wonder, why not turn instead to non-fiction? Too much on the lives and loves of the people of Somers Town, and it could trivialise a broader discussion about the causes and cures of poverty. But The Streets pulls it off, even managing a teasing, slower burn in the opening chapter before gathering pace.
And the new dimension? The Streets is also a thriller. The flawed Wildeblood is brought face-to-face with the flaws of those around him as he is drawn into the murky world of Victorian do-gooders whose motives are not quite as pure as they may seem. It leads to him become an inmate of a Dickensian workhouse and risk his life to get to the bottom of who is profiting by the abject misery of poor.
But Dickens is perhaps the wrong name to highlight here. Instead Quinn, as he notes in his afterword, draws on the work of the Liverpool-born philanthropist and mapper of Victorian poverty, Charles Booth, and another campaigner, Henry Mayhew (who in his turn influenced Dickens). The novel makes me want to learn more about both. Though it takes place 130 years ago, the questions that The Streets poses about how, as a society and individuals, we tackle deprivation arguably remain just as pertinent, especially when we have a cabinet with more than its fair share of wealthy Etonians struggling to find answers to our current economic woes.
Peter Stanford's 'The Extra Mile: a 21st-century pilgrimage' is published by Continuum
The Streets By Anthony Quinn Jonathan Cape, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop