Fleet Lane by Richard Smyth [9/10]

Anything British nature writer/novelist/essayist/cruciverbalist (crossword puzzler constructor) Richard Smyth writes, I read. Fearless, compendious, moral, and prolific he certainly is, but his superpower is a brilliant, sophisticated writing style. Every Richard Smyth page sings. His latest novella/short novel, Fleet Lane, plonks the reader into the Georgian London scene of 1760s medicine. At a fascinating time when medicine was just emerging from semi-witchcraft, upper-class “surgeons” have successfully banned lower-class “barbers” who operate on the sick without supervision. Henry Mendel, a half-Jewish, often drunk barber-surgeon, now rendered illegal, continues to operate with impunity and success, attracting the enmity of Johann Paternoster, powerful head of the official surgeons, who unleashes thugs as deterrence. A rollicking, profane collection of characters revolving around Mendel and Paternoster—Mendel’s brother the poet, a publisher with a “bleeding” beauty of a daughter, and many others—enlivens the central conflict, with an overarching character being richly described London, a London of reek, sewage, and sex. The author’s playful yet dense prose, somehow evoking the times, is a pleasure to experience and never interrupts the surefooted plot. Fleet Lane is a fascinating and delightful read.

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