Sunday at the Cross Bones by John Walsh

24/05/07, The Sunday Telegraph

Prurient hypocrisy of the gutter press brings down noble social figure, elsewhere, the press is full of Iraq … no, not the noughties of the twenty-first century but England of the early 1930s. Plus ça change, one might well wonder, except that John Walsh doesn’t labour the parallels – there is even a Reverend Blair at his pulpit – instead choosing to exercise the lightest of touches in this particular siren-call of an arena. This is an important pointer: Sunday at the Cross Bones is Walsh’s first novel; in other hands, the plenitude of research involved in the making of a book of this kind could have become obtrusive and jarringly angular, but to have prevented a first novel from falling into that trap is nothing short of miraculous. From the sparse facts known about the real Reverend Harold Davidson (1875-1937), Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, Walsh has fashioned a voluble, stylish, ludic, moving gem.
     Davidson is a compulsive, dogged saver of souls: he patrols the streets of London, on the lookout for young prostitutes, seeking ways to deliver them and find some other employment for them. There is an incandescent energy about him, a ceaseless pouring of his entire soul into his mission that might appear to be slightly in excess of his redemptive crusade. It is to Walsh’s enormous credit that while hinting at this ghost of a slippage, especially in the crucial encounter between him and Barbara Harris, a sixteen-year-old prostitute (a firecracker of a creation), he remains silent and restrained while giving full voice to the ethical and moral dilemmas that nudge at Davidson after this meeting. But the salacious press has been sniffing around Davidson from the very beginning, while back home in Norfolk, Davidson’s hapless, put-upon wife, Moyra, struggles with far too many things.
     Events hurtle towards their inevitable denouement – a trial that is any red-top’s dream followed by an equally unsavoury defrocking – and Davidson ends up, as a notorious celebrity, in a freak show circus, dying in a manner both bathetic and shocking. Told almost entirely through Davidson’s private journals, rumoured to have been stolen by an agent of the Bishop of Norwich and then destroyed, Walsh has created an unforgettable character in his Norfolk redeemer – garrulous, comic, sympathetic, deeply affecting, almost carnivalesque in both his voice and in the life and times that he inhabits. An enthralling circus of a book.