At Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt's suggestion, I picked up (can you pick up an e-book?) Some Danger Involved, the first book in Will Thomas' series about late-Victorian detectives ("private enquiry agents," excuse me) Barker and Llewelyn. It's Thomas' first book, published a decade ago, and it has first-book problems--the detective plot unfolds slowly and awkwardly, characters tend to stand and speechify, and Barker has so many quirks that he makes Sherlock Holmes look like, well, Watson--but I was interested enough to download the next book, so clearly Thomas did something right. Beyond that, though, some aspects of the book did intrigue me when I had my (neo)Victorianist hat on.
At one level, the novel clearly falls into the Henry Mayhew-esque or Charles Booth-esque "in darkest England" narrative line, which has proven extremely popular with neo-Victorian novelists. The novel plunges Llewellyn into an unfamiliar London cityscape populated by various and sundry Others, whether Other in terms of race, class, or religion. This London is clearly marked by traces of imperial power, in the form of people, objects, and ideas moving from the colonies to the metropolis and back again; immigrants and emigrants abound. Britain's imperial reach is religious as well as military and financial: Barker himself is the Baptist son of a "missionary from Perth" (197) who did his work in China. Although the Chinese community in England figures on the novel's fringes, in the form of restaurant owner Mr. Ho, Barker's Chinese gardeners, and Barker's previous right-hand man (now deceased), Mr. Quong, the novel's primary focus falls on the Jews, both the long-resident Sephardim and the newly arrived Ashkenazim. Through Llewelyn's gaze (and, sometimes, active participation), the novel introduces us to both a number of real Jews--Moses Montefiore, Nathan Rothschild, Israel Zangwill--and several fictional ones, taken from a cross-section of all levels of the Jewish community, very wealthy and very poor alike. At various points, we see a funeral service, visit Bevis Marks (warning: audio auto-plays), take a tour of the Jews' Free School, run into Jews sitting shiva, and get a glimpse of what it might be like to be a shabbes goy. Llewelyn is simultaneously puzzled by the lack of Jewish difference (Bevis Marks, thanks to its Christian architect, looks like Charles Haddon Spurgeon's church) and the recurring signs of Jewish otherness (Zangwill's casual invocations of the golem); he attempts to link Jewishness to explicitly Jewish bodies, a strategy which constantly run aground on characters like Michael da Silva, who looks like a "well-fed country parson" (57). These Jews raise the question, that is, not only of what it means to say "I belong to this group," but also of what it is to be English. Are the mostly-assimilated Sephardim English? What about Ashkenazim born in England, like Zangwill? And what to make of the immigrants, who cause anxiety for their assimilated counterparts, and for whom English is a second (or third) language? (Zangwill notes that the first murder victim, Louis, was "formal in his English" but more outgoing in Yiddish .) The Jewish characters negotiate multiple spaces in the novel, figuratively and literally; the plot does not confine them to Maida Vale or the East End. Llewelyn's individuated Jews stand in stark contrast to the undifferentiated hordes who spark the deadly imaginations of working-class Englishmen, who rage against the immigrants stealing their jobs. At the same time, these Jews are not passive victims before the possible rampages of the so-called "Anti-Semite League," but social activists and, when the situation calls for it, fighters--fighters with blunt swords, that is.
As is so often the case with this kind of fiction, the majority gaze on the minority population can certainly threaten to render the Other simply exotic. The novel addresses this issue sidelong with Llewelyn himself, who is himself socially and culturally problematic: a Welshman and son of a miner, he managed to go to Oxford, thanks to aristocratic patronage, only to marry a working-class girl ("how George Gissing," I thought, and was amused to find when I reached the afterword that George Gissing it was indeed), be caught thinking about stealing a coin, and thrown in jail. Llewelyn's situation is not "just like" that of the Jews or Chinese, but he is marginal along multiple fronts, from that of social class (what is a working-class man who attends Oxford?) to gender (he's extremely small) to national identity (the provincial Welshman). "I do have the black hair and swarthy skin of my once great race, the true Celts of Britain" (7), Llewelyn harrumphs, and he thus finds himself neither one of the racially and religiously despised, nor exactly an Englishman. As such, he functions as both insider and outsider to English culture, somewhat akin to Patrick O'Brian's cosmopolitan Dr. Maturin. Similarly, Barker's long travels overseas have left him a polyglot with a belief in the superiority of many Asian cultural practices and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for either jingoism or racism. "I was shaking my head at Barker's choices in help as I stepped out of doors," Llewelyn observes. "Chinese gardeners. Jewish butlers. Lazy clerks. Temperamental French cooks, and last but not least, downtrodden Welsh assistants" (74). The novel thus positions Barker's home as a kind of international intersection point, in which all races, religions, and nations co-exist, if not always peacefully, at least with considerable good humor. This mutually beneficial relationship seems to stand apart from what happens overseas, if Barker's contempt for racists is any indication.
Barker's status as a missionary child points up something rather unusual about the book: the characters are both unapologetic Dissenters, Barker a Baptist (and follower of Spurgeon) and Llewellyn a Methodist. Finally, a violation of Rule #2! Barker has chunks of the Bible memorized, knows his Jewish history and culture because Jews are "the chosen people" and "[i]f you are Christian, you must believe it so, because the Bible never contradicts it" (136), and dislikes blasphemous invocations of the Lord; Llewelyn, while less ostentatious, nevertheless "prayed and prepared myself to meet my Maker" (264) when he thinks he's about to die. (There's also Brother Andy, a prize-fighter turned evangelist to the poor.) As we roam from Christian type to Christian type, it becomes clear that the novel finds that a certain kind of religious belief is necessary for peaceful co-existence: Barker, Llewelyn, Brother Andy, the various Jewish groups, and even the Messianic Jews (who in reality would have called themselves Hebrew Christians) stand apart from the self-interested fanatics like the Rev. Painsley (a take-off of Ian Paisley?), who uses anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric to further his career, and the Anglo-Israelite Mr. Brunhoff, ditto. At base, the novel associates the "right" kind of religiousness not so much with 100% moral righteousness or theological correctness (it's not that kind of book) but, instead, with a basic empathy for the poor and marginal. That is, the book elevates practical faith over doctrine. It is hard not to notice, however, that the Big Bad isn't religious at all, that Barker had previously investigated an anti-Semitic attack that "turned out to be the work of a Jewish atheist" (136), and that one scary suspect comes across as the love child of Richard Dawkins and the crudest brand of online atheist. Thus, while the novel's call for interfaith toleration and mutual help is, in effect, secular (in the sense that the state should not privilege any one religion or actively discriminate against non-Christians), it certainly isn't in favor of secularists.
 It's not clear to me if "Rabbi Mocatta" is supposed to be a real member of the ultra-illustrious Mocatta family--I haven't been able to identify a historical parallel of the right age and profession, although there were so many of them that I may have just missed one.