The Tottenham Outrage by M H Baylis, book review: Streetwise murder tale for crime connoisseurs

 

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Merging the tried-and-tested crime fiction motif of a hard-living detective (a journalist rather than a policeman) hiding a troubled past with the specific local colour of the north London borough of Haringey, MH Baylis is on to a winning combination with his Rex Tracey mysteries.

In the first title in the series, A Death at the Palace, Rex found himself caught up in a mystery involving troubling anti-immigration sentiment and attacks on women of Eastern European origin in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, and now, in the follow-up, The Tottenham Outrage, the codeine-addicted, Polish-lager-swigging local newspaper reporter turns his attention to the Hasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill.

A family from the Dukovchiner sect is found dead at a picnic table in Finsbury Park – a father, mother, two children and a baby – and Rex and his friend and colleague Terry are first on the scene having, coincidentally, been in the vicinity interviewing a surly local historian, Dr George Kovacs, about his forthcoming book on the Tottenham Outrage, the armed robbery of the Schnurmann Rubber Factory and double murder carried out by two Latvian anarchists 1909.

"We are our history," one of the Jewish men Rex speaks to in the course of his investigations tells him, and so too Baylis weaves the events of the past into the fabric of his present resulting in something of a historical fiction, murder mystery hybrid. As in all good historical fiction, the basic facts are true – the Outrage was a cause célébre of its age, fuelling Edwardian anti-Semitism and xenophobia – brought to life by the addition of the author's artistic licence, and throwing light on the contemporary: "It was the first hint of the Tottenham we live in now," Kovacs explains. "Global, multicultural, connected." A factory in London "dependent on a casual, ever-shifting immigrant workforce" robbed by anarchists for the funding of acts of terrorism in Russia.

The next day Kovacs is found dead, too, and Terry's the main suspect. Rex sets out to clear his friend's name in a manhunt full of enough red herrings, twists and turns to satisfy even the most devoted of crime connoisseurs. From Wood Green to Stoke Newington, Rex finds himself following the clues across this "grimy, fascinating patchwork quilt of a borough", and this is where Baylis really comes into his own, breathing life into these lesser-known streets of the capital: the "sprawling, teeming, unloved area" Rex and his colleagues live and work in. This revulsion, however, is all for show, if anything The Tottenham Outrage is Baylis's tribute to a clearly much beloved area of London.

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