I admit to being a bit of a Jack Saul tragic. Like the author of this book, Glenn Chandler (lead writer for Taggart and substantial chops as a playwright), I have had a long interest in the history of gay life particularly that interesting period in the last half of the 19th century in Britain. Two of the focal points for that period are the Cleveland St brothel scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials. It is a watershed period as it would seem that a period of slightly increased tolerance (in some quarters) was matched by an increase in moral panic highlighted by the Labouchere amendment that laid down the foundations of nearly 100 years of blackmailing. I was intrigued by the involvement of the ‘Truth’ newspaper, the Australasian version of which continued in its prurient way well into my childhood (I read it every Sunday morning for the divorce reports).
One figure that sailed through this period was the shadowy ‘Dublin’ Jack Saul, putative author of ‘Sins of the Cities of the Plains’. Chandler has done the sterling service of exhaustively searching available resources to create the bare bones of his life and then fleshed out a story that incorporates his involvement in two great scandal trials, the Dublin scandal and Cleveland St. In doing so, he has created a window into the times, locations, social mores and institutions (especially the Police and courts). It is to his credit that he has done so carefully and has not indulged in unsupported fantasy or romanticism. Jack emerges as a character of interest and some mild sympathy as a creature of time, place and circumstance, someone the reader can understand without reading in too much modern sexual outlaw activist sentiment.
Anyone familiar with the growing Victorian desire to document the lives and living and working conditions of the underclass will not find the sketches of Jack’s birth and childhood in Dublin and his life in London surprising, some may find it depressing. The acute nature of the class system, its differences and impact, is made clear. I am always alert to courtroom judicial moralising and there is plenty of this and embedded fear of social change throughout the work.
The book is uneven with its share of occasionally jarring typos but that seems to be price of many modern books that are produced cheaply from computer script. Reader interest may vary a little but the two court cases are well documented and presented and hold reader interest particularly well. Chandler has followed up on many of the related characters who ended up in France (for the wealthy) and the US (for the adventurous) and perhaps Australia (for those who wanted to get as far away as possible).
This publication well satisfied my interests in history and biography and gave me a fascinating insight into a character one might well have believed otherwise was apocryphal.