Gemma Pearson reviews Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase, a murder mystery set in Victorian Pontypridd.
On the 23rd of June 1894, deep underground in the choking confines of the Albion Colliery, tragedy struck the mining village of Cilfynydd. In this small community just two miles north of Pontypridd, an explosion during the night shift resulted in the death of 290 men and boys; almost everyone in the area lost a father, son, brother, or friend. Set two years after the accident, Leslie Scase’s latest release, Fatal Solution, is a fastidiously researched mystery novel that follows as Pontypridd’s Inspector Chard navigates a series of scandalous crimes in an area still healing from the trauma of industrial disaster.
Published earlier this summer by Seren, Fatal Solution is the second instalment of the ‘Inspector Chard’ series, of which there is to be seven volumes. A promising indicator of what is to come, the pages of Fatal Solution teem with a bustling sense of community. Bringing the idiosyncrasies of Victorian Wales to life with a historian’s eye, Scase includes real, obsolete pub names and familiar landmarks alongside the classic, gloomy imagery of horse-drawn carriages, narrow streets lit by gas lamps, and men with monocles and moustaches. There is also a strong sense of Welsh identity, offset by Chard’s English background: “From an inauspicious start in Pontypridd, becoming embroiled in a brawl on his first night, he had through luck as much as judgment, been given credit for solving a number of serious crimes. From disorientated English outsider in this close knit, rather strange community, he had become thoroughly assimilated.”
With transportive accuracy and attention to detail readers, like Chard, are welcomed to Pontypridd – “or Ponty as it was often known” – to drink with the locals in the Ivor Arms, to watch rugby at Taff Vale Park, and to accompany Inspector Chard on his intriguing investigations.
Chard’s first assignment is to investigate the discovery of a body in a burnt-out workshop. Next, two men are poisoned in the local tearoom and a sex worker is murdered in her home. Is there a connection? Is it perhaps something to do with the Barry Railway Co. and the Taff Vale Railway, two competing rail networks embroiled in a clandestine gang-style conflict? Or is Pontypridd at the mercy of a vicious serial murderer? As Chard’s list of suspects and motives lengthens, readers are led through a series of clever red herrings before the truth is finally revealed.
It cannot go unsaid, however, that there are elements of this novel that might prove challenging for some readers, namely violent scenes of rape and drug-facilitated sexual assault. In addition, Scase’s novel contains very few female characters in comparison to the copious amount of (sometimes indistinguishable) male characters. What is more, the women that do crop up in Fatal Solution almost all fit into narrow and slightly frustrating stereotypes: the whore, the widow, and the love interest.
Nevertheless, combining his passions for local history and the classic detective story, Scase’s well-paced mystery succeeds in its mission to keep readers guessing until the very last pages.
Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase is available via Seren Books.