Quite how Larkyns (who grew up variously in London and the west country) and Muybridge (from Kingston upon Thames)found themselves in a California mining town looking down either end of a pistol is a convoluted tale, and the author tells it well. Yet despite all the references to his supposedly irresistible charm and wit, Larkyns remains an elusive and often annoying figure, seemingly unable to stop himself from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at every turn. It is hard not to lose patience when reading about him being bailed out from yet another unnecessary financial debacle, only to reappear in a new location to start the process over again. Full marks, though, to Rebecca Gowers for bringing this contradictory and little-known figure properly under the lens.
Rebecca Solnit dismissed him as a “rogue whose tales of his life before San Francisco are heroic beyond the reach of credibility”. However, as this biographical study by the novelist and non-fiction author Rebecca Gowers shows, this is unfair. He had an extraordinary life, one in which heroism, tragedy and deception were mixed in equal measure. The inspiration for Gowers’s book was the discovery that Larkyns – who was born Henry Larkins – was a distant relative of hers, the brother of her great-great-grandmother, Alice. According to Gowers, he “had a childhood no one could envy”.