BLURB: Victorian London had Jack the Ripper.
Georgian Dublin had the Dolocher…
The Dolocher is stalking the alleyways of Dublin. Half man, half pig, this terrifying creature has unleashed panic on the streets. Can it really be the evil spirit of a murderer who has cheated the hangman’s noose by taking his own life in his prison cell, depriving the mob of their rightful revenge? Or is there some other strange supernatural explanation?
This terror has come at the perfect time for down-at-heel writer Solomon Fish. With his new broadsheet reporting ever more gruesome stories of the mysterious Dolocher, sales are growing daily and fuelling the city’s fear. But when the Dolocher starts killing and Solomon himself is set upon, he realises that there’s more to the story than he could ever have imagined.
With the help of his fearless landlady, ship’s surgeon-turned-apothecary Merriment O’Grady, Solomon goes after the Dolocher. Torn between reason and superstition, they must hold their nerve as everyone around them loses theirs. But are they hunting the Dolocher or is the Dolocher hunting them?
Do you ever read books where you feel totally immersed in the place, the time, the people, the whole story? It often used to happen to me as a child – I’m thinking of the Narnia series – but it’s rarely it’s happened to me recently – in fact, I can’t remember the last time, until I read The Dolocher. For starters, it’s got an incredible sense of place – 1756 Dublin – wonderfully described, from the Black Dog Prison, to Merriment O’Grady’s apothecary shop, to Hell and it’s statue of Lucifer where new arrival Solomon Fish sells his broadsheets, keeping the fine people of Dublin up to date with the horrendous happenings in their town (bear with me; we’ll get to them!) There’s also the various drinking dens, where Solomon picks up gossip, and loses all his money, gambling in card games – in fact, it is this vice that is behind his return after 10 years exile in London, as he was being sought there for gambling debts.
The four main characters are wonderfully drawn – we have the aforementioned Solomon Fish, who needs someone who can draw to illustrate the broadsheets. He meets a young lad called Corker, who’s 14, and handy with the pen. His mother is an alcoholic, and he does his best to support all his younger siblings. He’s also wonderful for hearing what’s going on in the town, as he’s always hanging around the Chambers, the market, and lurking about the prison, listening in. By this method, he brings Solomon plenty of useful tips to use in his stories. And of course Sol hears plenty when he’s out, drinking and gambling.
The other main adult character is Merriment O’Grady, who has a song written about her, as when her true love was press-ganged she dressed up as a man and went to sea too, in hope of finding him. She was never reunited with him, but learnt a trade as a ship’s surgeon, which she put to good use on return to dry land by opening up an apothecary shop, with the encouragement of her captain – and sometime lover, when they were at sea – Beresford, who’s an influential man in the city. The citizens were initially wary of her, due to the fact she still insists on wearing a shirt, breeches, boots (and a hidden revolver!), but when word gets round her herbal remedies work, and that she sells something called Misses Philips’ Engine, for the protection of gentlemen, and that she can also help gentlemen with their various personal ailments, her business improves dramatically. And finally we have a young girl of 8 called Janey Mack, who Merriment found scavenging for anything of value outside her back door one freezing morning, and came to an agreement with her “guardian”, one-legged Hoppy John, that she would henceforth employ her as her apprentice. Janey’s a real firecracker, whose never short of something to say, and can’t believe she has a warm bed and a meal every night.
So who is this character, The Dolocher, who’s terrorizing the city, and is half-man, half-pig, raping and murdering those found out after dark? Some say his presence is due to a murderer named Olocher, who managed to dodge the hangman’s noose by slitting his own throat the night before his execution, and who is now a demon – a man in pig form. The entire city is desperate for news of The Dolocher’s doings, and one skill Solomon does possess is knowing how to turn a phrase that’ll get people rushing to buy broadsheets from himself and Corker. Unfortunately, once he’s paid Corker, Sol has a tendency to head straight to the nearest ale-house and blow his (not inconsiderable) earnings at cards, instead of saving money when business is good. The Dolocher is a gift of a story, and he won’t do as well as that most of the time.
Also feeling the pinch is Merry O’Grady, now she has an extra mouth to feed. As she has a spare room, she advertises for a lodger, and soon Solomon Fish is part of the household, with Corker popping by early every morning with any news and to collect Sol for work. The two of them become grand friends with Janey, with Corker showing off and telling her tall tales, and Sol teaching her to write.
All would be well if Sol didn’t have an encounter with The Dolocher one night. Shortly afterwards, Merry encounters him in her back yard. She believes The Dolocher thinks Sol can identify him, and worries for the safety of her household, after a lifetime of having no-one to worry about bar herself. The Dolocher must be found, and put on trial – although much of the city still believe he’s some kind of supernatural entity.
The book’s a fair size, at exactly 500 pages, but I raced through it, relishing Barry’s description of Old Dublin, and all the peripheral characters, like Gloria, who sells pies opposite Sol; Margaret “Peg” Leeson, the fashionable madam; the evil keeper of the Black Dog Prison, who’s suspected of being The Dolocher by some; the gangster Billy Knox and his men; and the various barmaids in the taverns Sol frequents. It’s a wonderful, colourful tale that I think all will adore. It’s almost like a fairy tale – but this is definitely one for grown-ups!
With thanks to all at Black and White Publishing for a review copy in exchange for this unbiased review.