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A rich, dark mystery set in repressed 19th-century London.

—Kirkus Reviews

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Crab Bait
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"A series of grisly murders disrupts Victorian London's covert gay scene in Brennan's historical thriller" (Kirkus Reviews), stirring an obsessive hunt for clues and culprits.

The year is 1888, it's Ripper murders in the capital as the New World flaunts a Gilded Age. In London, best men seek solace in the gentlemen's clubs, away places catering to their every interest.


Sizar's is a secret one, a new-club breed that lures athletic workhouse lads with the bait of a better life. But when a pledge gets dead-snagged under West Pier, a Scotland Yard detective hunts for clues.


Scandals wash in, bodies mount, boys clash in jealous pursuit, death keeps things fresh and gone ones haunt as five men tell the tale of the curious case of the beautiful creature under the pier.

This is a Preview of CRAB BAIT: A GAY MYSTERY, Softback out 1 June 2024. Buy US, UK, AU/NZ, CAEurope.

It was the golden age of the gentlemen’s club. Felt in every corner of every London establishment of standing. An away place from the gut-fuck of the New World’s Gilded Age. So plentiful in the St James’s precinct of the West End we know it as “Clubland”—a roll call of handsome venues all competing to cater to the most inside needs of Britain’s very best men. Georgian London was the cradle of the club, with White’s (1736) starting it all during the reign of the second Hanoverian king and the B’s of Boodle’s (1762) and Brooks’s (1764) being built during George III’s tenure. Public establishments at first, finest-bred men soon closed ranks and doors of their gatherings. Meets became private affairs convened in often lavishly custom-built home away from homes, each club creating individual rules and rituals, often secret; like the candle-and-cloak customs of the American education fraternities.


None were as secret as Sizar’s (1868), however, whose address would never be known in the annals of Clubland, only its scandals…so soiling-ly, ruinously ungentlemanly that the club’s name dares not even be whispered in civilised company, certainly never in White’s. “White” was a living person, believed by those in the club to have been of foreign extraction—Italian likely. “Boodle” was the club’s head waiter, so had something of a whiff of tongue-in-cheek behind its namesake. But “sizar” beat the rest in a bow down to boys who serve, being both a more abstract thing of reference and nod to many, many men, taking an ancient root in the lowly tending to better men.


Sizars were given a slot at Cambridge among kings, with food for the belly, knowledge for the mind and lodgings in the colleges along the Cam as compensation for their service. Sizarships offered the loftiest chances at a better life, paid for in the smallest way through menial bending to. Sizar’s, like masters of in-service boys of old, sought to breed the proud college traditions of Cambridge into a world of its own, into boys of the poorest fortunes but the richest flesh; its infamy to-day owes dues to this ambition, having thrashed in the washing-in tide of one frigid morning on the Brighton sands, 1888.

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Pink flesh pricked with each in breath as Stewart Marsh’s nostrils took the sea air in an unaccustomedly vigorous manner…to shake off the demons of an especially disappointing night of one of Sizar’s rituals—the sorting of boys. He enjoyed the burn; it brought peace to a Brighton-in-winter beach sprint before dawn: the last bastion of a former athletic life and days of pre-sculling sprint-race and hurdling training. Another sole-beach sprinter through a restless sleep was responsible for his burning breath; a faceless but uncannily familiar figure, of whom he had drawn inspiration for this most unusual of activities…to sprint alone and outside of the sport. This figure from his nightscape, bold against the brilliant yellow white of the Brighton sands, merged with boys-sorting disappointments to lead him to an early rousing and carry him down from the Royal Pavilion and to the sea. There was such a chill in the air that morning the sand clumped together as granules of ice. Crunching and collecting on his track-shoe soles. The tide was out. Brighton was known for its king tides. Swells that swept in and up to the dress hems of promenaders at its height. But at its out…well, it receded almost as far as the steamer launch platforms of the town’s 1000-foot piers.

The sight of the sands stretched out into the waking morn reminded him of both childhood and man-coming—an odd mixture. But he enjoyed the sight sensation, as queer as the joining of ages was. Piers are provisions for pleasure-seekers to walk out over the waves and the perfect cross-age bridge. A pier walk was a particular thrill for him who, like many in Her Majesty’s navy, had the sea in his blood but could not swim it. Sprinting under these iron, into-sea projections was specially stirring of the spirit of the non-swimmer. To thread through the barnacle-covered needles of these man-made marvels. To tread well below where the surface of the ocean had churned mere hours earlier and to see up. Up and into the wooden planking from below. It brought some of the perspective he needed to push out regret over how the night before had played. Fish flapped with land/sea odours at low tide in shallow deposits of seawater and around the corroded bases of the pylons, which added to this push—speaking to the speed with which the ocean rushes away, leaving behind any not fast enough to keep pace with change, even its own.


But what’s this? This morning, this hour, there was something larger left there; a mammal, certainly, coiled in a puddle in one of the outer-most crevices of West Pier. Curiosity cut him from a sprint to a gait to an utterly out-of-breath stop. To investigate.


A body!


Marooned, at the turning of dead low. Burning intensified with the discovery. Drawn from nostrils and down his throat, into the lungs and to grip the heart with a deeper chill. And, most eerie, the darkness increased with the investigation, too. The sun itself was blinking. On approach, the pier had appeared softly illuminated, gently outlined with the fore-coming of full sun. But now in its unders, sea-soggy boards of wood above, well…darkness was deeper here. There were sea depths at this point of under-board pier thread. Moreso even it felt than when he had set out from the Pavilion and passed the Grand Hotel little over one hour ago. Through what little light the morning now gave in teasingly flickered illumination he saw the sublime mound. Snagged in the pooled crevice where sand had been drawn away by the tide lay a young man. He felt able to adjudicate the mound’s youthfulness by the roundness of boyish bulk, having refereed many a wrestling match in the scouting for Sizar’s. The weight class of young men was something he knew intimately after twenty years as a club “head,” and this one’s was a rare weighting, in its own class, and more familiar than any restless dream. The creature was stripped, its skin a pale blue. But still, there was some white and a shade of pink beneath. Here was a beautiful creature. Lovely to look upon, even if he had only the back of it to appreciate. Beautiful. Even though flesh was torn in places where the creature had been snagged on the shell-sharpened iron. Beautiful…even with small-shelled scavengers already wide-circling. He brushed the crustaceans away from the creature’s wake with care. They were only proceeding based on the natural order. I will not allow natural orders on the Brighton sands, he thought. O no, not just yet.


Despite the trauma, there was no blood and no damage to the finest features…from his vantage. The side of the face, the buttocks, the genitals— viewable plump from the back between legs. The ripest of English sweet fruits. This is the freshest and most valuable of morning catch, he thought. A macabre imagining but he couldn’t help himself, feeling the need to touch…to turn the creature over…for air…for the face to be out of the pool…and so he might know this beautiful catch. He curled forward in the manner of the hard-shelled critters circling, acting on this feeling by rolling the sublime creature over. As he did, a voice called shrill through the mist of the Brighton winter——

“Oi there, what th’ hell ’re you doing?”


The call’s authority cut through him like a rogue wave against craggy outcrops, igniting an impulse for a four-legged retreat from the sea, back into the safety of his club’s exclusive use of two Brighton establishments. For how would this all appear to a fellow gentleman? But the intonation of his haggler held him there. It was…familiar. This voice was distantly known to him. To trace the voice’s origin was to shake him back to when his flesh was as fresh as the catch before him—though warmer and less fine-tasting. Before he could arrive at the precise point in the past where the sound could take shape in his mind, the voice through the mist was replaced with heavy breath by his side and a hand to snag him like a crab cage. It was a meeting of before-morning racers, he could tell by the scent of sweat. But after over-shoulder glance, as the voice had suggested to him already…a reunion of old boys, too. 


Oscar?” he said. “I do not believe it! What are you doing here?” The question was absurd. Mute to the salacious scene at their sand-granule feet; but on now having sight and smell as well for this known figure from his past…it was the only sentence construction. Oscar Glass of days along Cambridge-colleges riverbanks flinched being recognised, he would later lieat- all-too-many-more-restless-wakes recall. “Oscar, dear fellow, when did you get in?” he followed fast with.


“Yester-day. Ye–es. Yester-day, 10 am service from London.”


Oscar’s hairs were dark and his own blonde. Oscar had not aged much and had youthful skin, vital in the cold of morning. His old riverbank mate was almost as handsome as memory could make a man, with big bushy black eyebrows under which peered out round, inquisitive eyes. If any man were born to be a detective, it was this one. Unlike most men of their day, Oscar had no facial hair, which was a requirement of the man’s line of work—of keepers of the peace and enforces of law and order, or so he thought he had read somewhere. Seeing how young a fresh blade had kept the fella from his youth, he longed for a cut-throat himself to clear away his own lip growth, so he might be young again with Oscar, too.


“You shouldn’t be here, Stew Boy,” Oscar said heavy. “Nay. Quickly!


Oscar remembered him, calling the name only Oscar ever had. Is this equally transporting an experience for him, he wondered. To youth-filled times?No! the poor creature. You get help; I’ll stay with…I’ll stay…here.”


The sands were shifting under their feet. As is the way with the tides in Brighton—especially out there, around the iron of her piers—already the water was rushing back towards the dress hems. Crevices were being swirled into sinkhole softness around the men’s grounded bits as had been formed around the pillar that had snagged the creature.


“Insist on staying, eh Stew Boy,” Oscar said, stern still, as he remembered the man. “Help m’get ’im up the beach. Come now!” The commands spoke of confidence in the matter at hand. A knowingness of what to do.


How anyone could know in a situation such as this struck him as beyond the civilised world he’d wished to shelter such creatures from through his club. It stinks of the outside under the irons. But to the task of getting the creature back from the sea, keeping perfect flesh from being torn any further, advanced upon by sea undertakers any more…this task formed fast as more than the civilised action—as something dear to him. “Careful with his head,” he said, as Oscar took upper portions in capable arms.


There was resistance at first. The creature steadfast, having become stuck fast to the pier. But when the body gave to their tug, Oscar took the creature competently. Caring-ly, compassionately, against adult chest. Committed, they were both, he observed, to see that no further harm came to the creature. He was at the legs himself, where the joints moved supplely still. So too did the parts that made this a man. The fruits, full and fragrant up close to the nose and mouth, still soft and responsive to movement. They were, he noticed from recollection of yester-day, untouched by the sharp edge of the sea.




“Put ’im down carefully now,” Oscar said, then removed outer tunic to drape over the creature’s body, lain flat at the top of the beach.


It seemed a shame to cover the creature, nearly more poetic to have left the sublime thing where it was, bundled at the base of the pier, ready to be consumed by sea. And had he or Oscar not come by, this was precisely what would have happened; the patch of sand where the creature had been discovered was now buried by more than six feet of the rising tide. It was now a watery grave for whatever unmoving flesh was left caught under the pier. “Time to go now, Stew Boy. O yes, mean it now. No sense in you getting pulled into this.”


More than twenty years since last seeing Oscar, still the man had the power to pull him into line. “I suppose…yes, very well, I will. But——”


Patience left their bundle with the swiftness of the unpredictable sea: “What d’you want, Stew-art?” Oscar said cutting.


“It’s just,” he said, “you see, I—I—I know him.”


A face he remembered as a boy being of constant composure flinched for the second time in the space of their morning reunion. “Know ’im, eh? O yes, that does change things. Where’re you staying, Stew Boy?”


He hesitated: “The—the–the, at the Grand Hotel.”


“Right. Still go—but know I’ll be calling in on ya later, Stew Boy.”

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