On a cold night in 1767, thanks to an uncommon piece of luck, a convict destined for the gallows walks free from Newgate Prison. Almost immediately, in a second stroke of good fortune, he finds a drunken man, prostrate on the road, his purse heavy with coins. The scene that follows, as the convict takes first half and then almost all of the man’s money, and then returns a third time to relieve him of his coat and boots, all the while intent upon justifying his actions as only fair and reasonable, is a masterful piece of writing. Comic, touching and profound, it hurls the reader head first into the earthy, opportunistic eighteenth-century world of Tristram Shandy and Moll Flanders. It is also a pitch-perfect evocation of the moral flexibility of those set on financial gain.
Almost two decades after his novel Sacred Hunger famously shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Barry Unsworth has published its sequel. Set on board an eighteenth-century slave ship, Sacred Hunger was an impassioned epic about the corrupting power of greed and the striving for profit ‘which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes’. The book was a response to the unbridled materialism of Thatcherite Britain and the deification of wealth that has continued in the intervening years, through boom and bust, to define Western society. Little wonder, then, that The Quality of Mercy, which takes up the story of the mutinous crew two years later, marks a return not only to a number of the characters first encountered in Sacred Hunger but to its central themes.
Sullivan, the escaped convict of the opening chapter, is one of the sailors dragged back to England by Erasmus Kemp, the son of a bankrupted slave-ship owner, to face trial for piracy and murder. At the same time, in the civil courts, Kemp is endeavouring to extract compensation from his