When The Wickedest Man in London stalks the genteel Highgate cemetery he comes across a young woman with whom he become obsessed. Engulfed in his finery in anticipation of jolly japes, high adventure and the emotion that comes with understanding the very depths of humanity, we have main character Lord Geoffrey Thraxton.
From Vaughn Entwistle, The Angel Of Highgate is a strange beast that weaves between the passions of Heaven and a multi-faceted melancholia pondering the nature of death.
The story takes us through a panorama of the London society of old. Set in 1859, we careen through streets laced equally with the soirees of lords and ladies of leisure as through the slums and, thanks to Entwistle’s imaginative language, both entrap and entrance in equal measure.
This is, however, a very odd book indeed owing to its inharmonious tonal shifts. Its style is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ finest scares, but eschews Dickens’ dark comedy in favour of graphic depictions of violence and death that would be grotesquely misjudged were they not so clearly framed by the moral social realism that (just) holds the plot together.
This is despite the fantasy elements that honour its heroes’ derring-do as near indestructible and utterly gothically romanticised, particularly in one sequence that involves a chase atop a gas-lit London skyline. As a peculiar counterpoint, its passages of introspection are affecting (if rather plodding), being depressing, oddly comforting and profoundly jarring as a result.
The Angel of Highgate is a ripping yarn but also a rather confounding read because it is an olde style, air-punching adventure and a glimpse into the eyes of actual decay.
It is an admirably thought-provoking, often fun and impressively decent tale. It’s high points make it easy to overlook the few flaws, and result in an enjoyable read that grips you most of the way through.