This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’, tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.
One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.
Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!” *
The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?
This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.
*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.