As alert habitués of these pages will recall from my review of Mind of A Killer last year, the authors of Watchers of The Dead are the Anglo-American writing partnership of Elizabeth Cruwys and Beau Riffenburgh. Now, as then, we are in Victorian London following the adventures of the fictional Alec Lonsdale and the real-life Hulda Friederichs, both reporters working for the Pall Mall Gazette under the stern gaze of its editor John Morley, and the rather more eccentric eye of his deputy WT Stead.
Note: Watchers of The Dead contains a liberal mix of fictional characters and historical figures. Where possible I have provided links to external information about the real people.
Lonsdale remains engaged to the delightful Anne Humbage but her objectionable sister Emilie (who is likewise betrothed to Alec’s brother Jack) and her pompous father cause him a certain amount of grief, especially as he is becoming rather attracted to the ill mannered, abrupt and wilfully independent Hulda who, when she has a mind to pay attention to the fact, is something of a stunner.
The pair investigate a series of bizarre and intricate murders, including that of the abrasive and controversial Archibald Campbell Tait who, although Archbishop of Canterbury, never forgot that he was, first and foremost, a Scot. For the historically alert, Tait’s death on 3rd December 1882 is not on record as being the result of foul play. The first death to attract the attention of Lonsdale and Friederichs is that of a Professor Dickerson whose corpse is found in a cellar beneath the recently opened Natural History Museum in South Kensington. As part of a scheme to attract visitors, the management – driven by the ambitious Richard Owen – intended to display three living people from the depths of the Congo. Billed as cannibals, their only vice seems to have been a delight in singing along to choruses from the Savoy Operas, but they have disappeared overnight and, in doing so, have become the prime suspects for the killing of Dickerson.
Also on the run is a man convicted of attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria. Sentenced to life imprisonment on the grounds that he was mad, Roderick Maclean was sent to Broadmoor but, finding its treatment regime and facilities less than convivial he has, to use the modern term, done a runner.
The authors have great fun with all the familiar tropes of Victorian London: the fogs rising from the Thames, the horse-shit strewn cobbled streets and the peculiar affection most of the people feel for the plump little black widow from Windsor. The story unfolds in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and it reminds us that what we take as staple seasonal fare – the trees, the tinsel, the cards and the baubles – was regarded by many traditionalists as being a vulgar and unwelcome Germanic import.
Watchers of The Dead is great entertainment. It is sometimes implausible, but always a helter-skelter ride full of fascinating detail and superb narrative drive. The authors deftly fill the stage with fictional characters and real people, and it was a joy to read a fictional account of the great English sportsman Albert Nielson (Monkey) Hornby, immortalised (if you love cricket, as I do) in the poem by Francis Thompson:
“For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!”
Alec Lonsdale is a figment of the authors’ imaginations, but Hulda Friederichs lived and breathed. The internet has little to offer in the way of information about this remarkable woman but The British Library may be a richer seam and, when next I visit, Hulda will be at the top of my requests list. Watchers of The Dead is published by Severn House and is out now.