Derby Day is meticulously plotted and written with bouncy confidence. It tells the story of a sordid, conniving rascal called Happerton who plots a betting swindle for a Derby of the 1860s. He marries the colourless but near-sociopathic daughter of a rich attorney, and cheats on her without noticing the intensity of her passion for him. The couple sedate the old man, reduce him to his dotage and raid his savings. Happerton also masterminds a raid on the strong-room of a City jewellers — echoes here of the jewellery raid in Taylor’s previous novel, At the Chime of a City Clock.
All the while, with smug, relentless guile, he also collects the promissory notes of a debt-ridden squire called Davenant, a lonely widower who lives with his emotionally retarded daughter in a decaying house in the Lincolnshire Wolds. After forging Davenant’s signature on some bills, Happerton is able to encompass his ruin. He gets hold of the great prize, a prodigious racehorse called Tiberius, which Davenant owns, together with his prey’s ancestral manor. Davenant drowns himself in a ditch. But instead of backing Tiberius honestly, Happerton uses the proceeds of the jewellery raid to lay bets on its rivals, and mounts a broken old jockey on his favourite. It is Happerton, though, not the jockey, who is heading for a tumble.
Taylor takes risks with his novel as daring as his villain’s. It is a clever pastiche of Victorian melodrama, and a sustained exercise in misanthropic whimsy. Although whimsy works best in miniature, and 400 pages of pastiche might seem testing, Taylor does not come a cropper. His favourite themes — as they were O. Henry’s and Damon Runyon’s — are the whirligigs of fortune and the squalor of criminal underworlds. Like Henry and Runyon, Taylor hovers on the dangerously tempting edge of facetiousness (‘Lady Fantail’s fête champêtre at Ponders End’), but stops himself from slipping over the precipice.
Derby Day is peppered with good jokes — sporting journalists called Priestley and Pritchett, for example — and quaint period details. I savoured Taylor’s image of racehorse owners on the eve of the Derby breakfasting on porridge, a plate of sprats and brandy-and-water (the favourite breakfast of the real-life Lord Hastings, who ruined himself betting on the 1867 Derby, was mackerel poached in gin, with caviar on devilled toast, washed down by claret cup). Taylor’s descriptions of the Lincolnshire Wolds attain real beauty. It’s even fun for readers to pounce on the odd details that seems awry. Has there ever been a ‘small’ house in Eccleston Square? Would Victorian gentlemen have drunk marsala during a dinner of cutlets? What Victorian duchess lived in a rat-run like Hay Hill?
There is pallid sweetness about a Lincolnshire governess, and charity in the heart of a neighbouring Lincolnshire squire. But Taylor’s London protagonists are envious, vindictive, expedient creatures who put a price on everything but have no values themselves. This is a novel of mistrust and revenge. There is no happiness or sexual joy; none of the characters in Derby Day feels quite easy about having fun. Although it is a rattling good yarn for the beach, its mood will work best on holiday with someone whom you wish you had the courage to leave.