HarperCollins, £16.99 stg (hardback)

An utterly brilliant detective novel with an historical setting, 'Gallows Thief' will keep you hooked to the very end.

The year is 1817 and Charles Corday has been convicted of the brutal rape and murder of the Countess of Avebury. Few believe that the effeminate homosexual portrait painter was responsible for her death, but all are willing to let him hang - except his mother. In the service of the Queen, Charles' mother appeals to her employer to save her son's life.

With the Queen's intervention, the Home Secretary is obliged to launch an inquiry - even if it is only a token one. It was an open and shut case, a week's pay for a day's work, but who will perform the task?

Captain Rider Sandman is down on his luck. Once of a very rich line, Sandman's father had gambled the family's fortune and then committed suicide, bringing shame and destitution on his family. The Captain, an honourable man, further adds to his troubles by trying to pay off his father's smaller debts. The former soldier and famous cricketer is a gentleman leading a pauper's existence.

When he is offered the investigator's job, without any qualifications whatsoever, it seems ideal. However, after interviewing the condemned man, Sandman too believes that the painter is innocent. Being a man of scruples he sets out to become the gallows thief.

Author Bernard Cornwell has crafted a murder mystery in which Rider Sandman has seven days to prove a man's innocence in an age before forensic science, communications and transport were fully developed.

Will Sandman find the key witness? Will she testify in Corday's favour? And will he get back to the Old Bailey in time to save an innocent man's life? 'Gallows Thief' is gripping to the final page - excellent.

Joanne Ahern