Created by Richard Helms
“Don’t count so much on my heart. I have to eat like everyone else.”
This Helms guy just keeps on making up new and interesting eyes, but VICAR BREKONRIDGE may be one of his more intriguing creations.
In 1840s London, Brekonridge is a thief-taker, which means Helms takes pains to explain (in a slightly jarring anachronistic aside) means that he’s “part bounty hunter and part private detective, though neither term existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Their duties ranging from assisting police officers in the apprehension of criminals, to acting as private agents for victims in crime, to — in some cases — shaking down wanted criminals as a form of extortion.”
But what he really is is a fascinating character to follow around, as he makes his way through the streets and back alleys of London, through its open air markets and dingy taverns or journeying out to Newgate Prison to visit a man he put there. A veteran of the Royal Navy and the War of 1812, and a former Bow Street Runner, Vicar realizes he has a knack for apprehending criminals (ie: thief-taking), and decides to go into business fort himself shortly after the Runners were absorbed into the Metropolitan London Police Force. Seems there was a question of overly violent tactics, involving the arrest of some wealthy muckety-muck who was caught in the act of strangling a prostitute.
Certainly, Vicar has a way about him; at slightly six feet, he’s a head taller than most men in 1840s London, and sports a battered beaver felt John Bull that adds another half foot to his height. His longish hair is jet black, despite the fact he’s almost fifty, and he’s not shy about enjoying life’s simple pleasures, be they mugs of beer, raw oysters slurped down in a pub, bowls of cawl from a communal pot or a nice chunk of hemp smoked in his ever-present pipe. He’s also considered ruggedly handsome, for what that’s worth — at least when seen from the left. But what really makes him stand out in a crowd is the disfigured right side of his face, “a congealed mass of bubbled scars extending from over what remained of his ear down across his jaw line, up into the hair, and down the back of his head into his neck,” courtesy of an apartment fire that destroyed everything he owned.
Though he did rescue three small children from the blaze at the time.
And that’s what really makes him such a striking character. For all his rough-and-tumble manners, cynical bravado, mercenary motives and sliding scale honesty, in a shady profession not particularly known for its integrity, he struts thrown the streets of London, a cloud of hemp in his wake, hewing to some inexplicable personal code that betrays a startling even-minded empathy for the criminals he hunts down, and a concern for — of all things — justice, which reminded me, of all people, of Sam Spade‘s moral ambivalence.
So far, Vicar has only appeared in one short story, “The Cripplegate Apprehension” in the July/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but it’s a good one. Helms, an International Thriller Award winner and a Derringer winner, says it won’t be the last — he plans on it being the first of a new series.
Certainly he has a knack for it. Among his other P.I. creations, both contempory and historical, are Pat Gallegher, Cormac Loame, Eamon Gold and Tommy Crane.
- “The Cripplegate Apprehension” (July/August 2019, EQMM)