A real danger for historians and other academics when they try writing fiction is the tendency to overload the narrative with facts and trivia. The story forgotten, they launch into a technical description of an object or a brief treatise on some aspect of the period, making the reader feel as though they’ve fallen through a hole in the story and landed on somebody’s lecture notes. This is a pitfall that Pollard largely avoids, though: after some early wobbles (the early chapters set in the hospital have some very informative dialogue in them), he does a good job of keeping things relevant to the story, and the historical information serves to colour the goings-on, rather than distract from them.
But while Pollard gets the atmosphere and description just right, The Minutes of the Lazarus Club suffers from a vagueness in the storyline itself. The plot has too many threads, most of which come and go without reaching any solid dramatic resolution, and the dramatic tension also suffers because the protagonist has nothing really to lose. Pollard has made some effort to draw Phillips more inexorably into the story, but his motivations are always too tenuous. There’s a suggestion that he might be implicated in the murders, but this is never really developed to the point of a crisis, and is eventually disposed of almost as an afterthought. Later, we’re supposed to believe that he’s hooked on avenging the killing of a man he met for maybe five minutes. As a result, our narrator spends much of the book getting in and out of trouble with no real motivation; he’s got nothing at stake himself, and doesn’t even have any strong connection to the characters that do. And when the protagonist could theoretically walk away from the story without losing anything, the reader will often feel the same way.
Even the third-person prologue, in which the body is discovered by a boatman, seems like it’s been added later in order to reassure the reader that there’s murder and drama on the way.
The Minutes of the Lazarus Club, then, could have used one more good edit, to tighten up the plot, shave off 100 pages or so, and give its protagonist a little more to lose. In all, though, this isn’t a failure as a debut novel. Within the first couple of hundred pages, Pollard masters the art of blending factual information with action, and I suspect that by the time his next novel is finished, he’ll have his pacing and conflict management in hand too. (There are already some fine set-pieces in this novel.) All of which means that while The Minutes of the Lazarus Club is too flawed to be a great historical adventure in itself, it does suggest that there may be some good things to come from Tony Pollard.