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Gallows Thief [Hardcover]

Cornwell Bernard
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 18 2001
1820s Britain: after the wars with France, when unemployment was high and soldiers could be paid off, when the government was desperately afraid of social unrest, any crime was drastically punished and thousands were hung. But one could petition the King and an investigation might ensue...

The man in the dark cell in Newgate Prison was due to hang in a week. He had been found guilty of murdering the aristocrat whose portrait he was painting. He claimed to be innocent – but then the hangman had never hung a guilty man, he said. But even in 1820, the Home Secretary could occasionally use his powers to grant mercy if his investigator found cause and Captain Hawke, once of the First Foot Guards, is given the job, since justice must be seen to be done as the accused man's mother is seamstress to the Queen.

Robert Hawke, a hero of Waterloo, has family debts to repay but when his first steps in the investigations produce a sizeable bribe to look the other way, this only arouses his smouldering anger over the condition of England, a country which he and others in Wellington's army had fought to preserve. Stepping between gentlemen's clubs and taverns, talking to aristocrats, fashionable painters, their models, and their mistresses, dodging professional cut-throats and deceptive swordsmen, Hawke uncovers a conspiracy of silence, a group whose proudest boast was that they would do anything for any one of them.


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By setting Gallows Thief in the Regency period, Bernard Cornwell is able to use his customary skills of characterisation and razor-sharp plotting against a vividly realised new backdrop.

It is Britain in the 1820s. After the wars with France, with unemployment high and soldiers paid off, the government lives in mortal fear of social unrest. The solution is draconian punishment for any crime, and thousands die on the gallows. But despite this, it was possible to petition the King and instigate an investigation. Cornwell's new hero Robert Hawke is a hero of Waterloo struggling to repay his family debts when he becomes involved in the case of a man waiting to be hanged in Newgate prison. Given the job by the Home Secretary of investigating the man's guilt or innocence, Hawke finds himself knee-deep in labyrinthine plots involving bribes, sedition and a massive conspiracy of silence. As this suggests, the contemporary parallels are never far away.

The world Cornwell has conjured for us is as richly drawn as any in his distinguished career: gentlemen's clubs and taverns, haughty aristocrats, fashionable painters and their mistresses, and professional cut-throats; all this creates a heady melange that is just as impressive as anything in Cornwell's Sharpe series. --Barry Forshaw

Review

'What a very fine writer Mr Cornwell has become.' -- The Economist

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars This Sandman Keeps You Awake! June 14 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Cornwell simply cannot be outdone in the historical adventure genre. While thoroughly describing the nature of the times with encyclopedic detail, we are never bogged down in dry facts: we can smell the noxious fumes of Newgate Prison, feel the disgrace heaped upon Sandman over his father's suicide and subsequent family downfall, worry over the skewed justice system that hangs for both petty thievery and grisly murder. We are aided in knowing the customs and colloquialisms of the middle and lower classes in that they are equally foreign to Sandman; we learn right along with him.
If you are a Sharpe fan, don't expect nail-biting, in-your-face battles and sieges. While our hero, Rider Sandman, resides in the same era, he is no comparison to Sharpe in personality or vocation; this is strictly a murder mystery. Although no real clues per se, the journey to finding the killer is nonetheless enjoyable, both plot and characters full-fledged and engaging. This story is more about how Sandman deals with his new station in society, the varying strata of society, and the nature of people he meets and befriends throughout than it is about 'who done it'. I would have liked to have seen more of the mysterious Jack "Robin" Hood, but Sandman's other allies make for a disparate, likable enough crowd.
My one complaint is the anti-climatic ending. The suspense of the innocent's imminent death was irritatingly interrupted by hangman's procedures that had already been fully and adequately described in the beginning. The constant back and forth between the final "chase scene" and the hanging ruined the tension; you'd miss nothing if you skipped over the prison scenes at the end to get to the good stuff.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Can we have more? May 2 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Better known for his Richard Sharpe series, Cornwell, nevertheless, scores big with Gallow's Thief. Historical fiction, it is set in London, two years after Waterloo. It has all the usual ingredients of a sucessful historical (or detective, or mystery) novel - action, intrique, murder, sex, mystery. While the book does tend to formula in it's detective work (The backhanded compliment to Sherlock Holmes is appreciated.), all that is overcome by a wonderful cast of characters.
Captain Rider Sandman is honorable, brave, consentious and, of course, poor as a church mouse. In order to keep body and soul together, he accepts the job of Inspector. In this case, he is given the uneviable task of determining the guilt or innocence of an already condemned man.
Sandman's allies are a disparate group. Sally Hood, actress and sometime model for various painters, is Sandman's tutor in the slang and life of London's slums. Her want-to-be beau and eventually Sandman's strong right arm is the very capable Sergent Berrigan. Her elusive and mysterious brother is Jack a.k.a. Robin Hood, a notorious Highwayman. The club-footed Lord Alexander is his true, if somewhat flighty friend. Finally, there is Eleanor, Sandman's somtime finace. To add a bit more spice, Eleanor and Sandman are still desparately in love dispite her mother's objections.
The opposition is rich, arrogant, and devoid of all scruples or any sense of honor. Members of the Seraphim Club consider themselves too rich or too well born to be subject to the law.
The chase for the truth careens through the upper crust of English society, the slums of London and the normally bucolic English countryside. It is a wild and intriguing ride.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Rider Sandman is my hero April 26 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I highly recommend this intelligent and exciting novel set in Regency England. Bernard Cornwell has given us an insolvent war hero, who also is an outstanding cricket player, recruited (on request of the queen) to determine if a man condemned to die is actually guilty of murder. The opening chapter of the book takes the reader to a hanging and follows it up with a breakfast of kidneys -- a most memorable start for this breakneck paced mystery. Rider Sandman is a very likeable hero, ethical in the extreme, who will not rest until he finds out who indeed murdered the lightskirted wife of an English nobleman. In the process, he recruits a former soldier, an opera girl and her highwayman brother, as well as friends who knew him before his father disgraced the family name and lost the family fortune. Along the way, he has to deal with conflicted feelings about his former love, whose parents forced the young lady in question to break off her engagment to Sandman when his father committed suicide. This book takes the reader from the city of London to the countryside and back again, with some side trips to the cricket field. According to the author's website, there are many fans who hope for a sequel to "Gallows Thief," however Mr Cornwell is not committing himself at this time. We live in hope!
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3.0 out of 5 stars CORNWELL CAN DO BETTER! June 5 2003
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
My first Cornwell outing was the incredible Grail Quest series - followed by the weak novel of Stonehenge. As an avid reader of historical fiction I try to be as patient and lenient as possible, because allowances have to be made in order to drive the story. Being of fair mind I read Gallow's Thief hoping that Rider Sandman would become another Thomas of Hookton (Grail Quest). Alas, disappointment set in quickly. First sign of trouble was the weak over-used plot, which the reader becomes aware of from the beginning: condemned man, may be innocent - find real killer before it's too late. Okay, big deal - there's a reason why we all like the classics. We shortly meet Rider, back from the war with France (Sharpe series territory) whom we learn is good at Cricket, so good that he makes a small amount of money playing for various teams. Cricket was mentioned so much that I was beginning to wonder if I was missing a crucial "cricket as analogy" connection that would have brought some dimension to this story. I fear not - Rider Sandman never grows as a character beyond the two dimensions of Cricket star and veteran.
Bottom Line: The story plods along from start to the predictable (groan) finish with really no excitement or surprises. I think Cornwall is a great writer and I'll continue to read is work, but the unevenness of his novels is frustrating.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Capital Punishment in the 19th Century
Bernard Cornwell's novels are always so much fun to read! Every book he writes makes the reader a time traveller in which the setting, characterization, dialogue, social mores and... Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2003 by Tim Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!
I truly enjoyed this book. If you like historical fiction - get this book! Mr. Cornwell really makes history come alive with the story of the Newgate prison, the politics and... Read more
Published on June 6 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars A Real Page Turner!
This is the first Cornwell book I have read. It was excellent. If you like historical fiction you will be enthralled. Read more
Published on June 3 2003 by Moving On
5.0 out of 5 stars If you loved the Richard Sharpe novels you will love this!
The Gallows Thief is enriched by excellent period research but not overwhelmed by it. Bernard Cornwell is a brilliant writer who knows how to weave research throughout his... Read more
Published on March 30 2003 by Jo Manning
5.0 out of 5 stars I hope Mr. Cornwell gives continuity to this one.
Really I think this one is an alternative subject on wich he moves with easyness and masterfully knowledge, and the hero is very different from Sharpe (but less cryptical... Read more
Published on March 24 2003 by ADB
5.0 out of 5 stars riches-to-rags
This is much more than a historical whodonit. Sandman, the hero, has just suffered a reverse of fortune when the story begins: his father has committed suicide because he was... Read more
Published on Feb. 25 2003 by ex nihilo
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent period detective thriller.
England 1817, and an effete young artist is accused of the rape and murder of the wayward wife of a powerful man - the only possible sentence in these times is the gallows; but his... Read more
Published on Nov. 5 2002 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent period detective thriller.
England 1817, and an effete young artist is accused of the rape and murder of the wayward wife of a powerful man - the only possible sentence in these times is the gallows; but his... Read more
Published on Nov. 5 2002 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Cornwell doesn't leave us hanging!
... In Bernard Cornwell's "Gallows Thief" the author changes gears abit (as well as genres) and give us a historical mystery procedural that is worthy of its classification. ... Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2002 by Billy J. Hobbs
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