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ARROWOOD AND THE MEETING HOUSE MURDERS . . . Between the covers

Arrowood

The publicity blurb says, “London Society takes their problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.” This is, indeed, a very different world to that of the occupant of 221B Baker Street.

“The Guvnor lived in rooms behind the pudding shop on Coin Street, just down the road from Waterloo Station. There were five of them there. His sister Ellie and wife Isabel slept in the bedroom with their two babies, Mercy and Leopold. Arrowood had a mattress on the parlour floor. Since I’d last been there, the Christmas decorations had been put out.: some holly and twigs strung up to nails on the wall, a few painted baubles hanging from the mantel, a little model of a manger with the baby Jesus on the dresser. The babies slept in their boxes on the table.”

ArrowoodThe narrator is Norman Barnett, William Arrowood’s equally impoverished assistant. Neither man is a stranger to tragedy. Barnett’s wife, ‘Mrs B’ died some months previously, while Isabel Arrowood left her husband to live with a richer man in Cambridge. He died from cancer, leaving her with his baby in her womb. She has since been taken back by her husband, but all is far from well between them. We are in the final years of the 19th century, a few decades since Gustave Doré produced his memorable – and haunting – engravings of the darker side of London, but Arrowood’s London is hardly a shade lighter. Poverty, death and illness are everywhere – in the next room, or just around the corner.

The plot has the lurid and fantastical quality of a magic lantern show. Four black South Africans have escaped the grinding poverty and oppression of their homeland and somehow made their way to Europe. They have been hired to part of a circus cum freakshow run by an unscrupulous showman called Capaldi. Billed to perform as Zulus, the quartet have escaped. Capaldi, having fed and housed them in anticipation of capitalising on their curiosity value to his audiences, is aggrieved and wants them back. They have taken refuge with Mr Fowler, a well-meaning Quaker who works with The Aborigines’ Protection Society 1

Fowler hires Arrowood and Barnett for a few days to act as night-time bodyguards to the Africans  who are sheltering in the Quaker Meeting House, but when they arrive for duty, they find Fowler shot dead and one of the Africans, Musa, tied up, his face battered, and dead from strangulation.  Inspector Napper of the Metropolitan Police takes charge of the murder enquiry but, short staffed, he asks Arrowood for help. The finger of suspicion points at Capaldi and his enforcers, but life is never that simple.

As the case becomes ever more complex, Arrowood faces professional failure, but tragedy looms at home. Finlay has created a complex character. He is physically unprepossessing, overweight, a face like a bloodhound and he is a martyr to piles. When, in order to earn the money for some quack medicine for one of the poorly babies back in Coin Street, he is forced to deputise for one of Capaldi’s freaks – The Baboon Woman – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

MFThere is a rather melancholy soundtrack to the plot, including The Violet I Plucked From Mother’s Grave, reputedly a song frequently sung by the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Lane Kelly. Finlay’s research into the darker aspects of late Victorian life is impressive, particularly in the kinds of medicine available to the general public. Two such potions that probably killed as many as they cured were Godfrey’s Cordial and Black Drops2

Eventually, and with fatal consequences for more than one of the participants, the case is solved, but to no-one’s particular satisfaction. It being late December, there is barely a chink of daylight on the London Streets, and this is echoed by the sombre mood of the narrative. I don’t suppose there is such a thing as Victorian Noir, but if there were, it is here. It’s superbly written, and both chills and grips like a London fog. Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders is published by HQ, an imprint of Harpr Collins, and is out now. Author Mick Finlay has an informative website. Click on his image (right) to go there.

1.The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) was an international human rights organisation founded in 1837, to ensure the health and well-being and the sovereign, legal and religious rights of the indigenous peoples while also promoting the civilisation of the indigenous people who were subjected under colonial powers, in particular the British Empire.

2. Godfrey’s Cordial was a patent medicine, containing laudanum (tincture of opium) in a sweet syrup, which was commonly used as a sedative to quieten infants and children in Victorian England. Black Drop was a 19th-century  medicine made of opium, vinegar, spices, often sweetened with sugar and made into something resembling a boiled sweet.

MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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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.

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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?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This 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.

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (2)

SO FAR – Saturday 16th April, 1870. Thomas Chapman and his wife Ann have gone out for a walk together, leaving heir children at home in Linen Street Warwick, with Ann’s parents. Neither would ever return to that back-to-back terraced house.

Thomas Chapman’s father lived in Friar’s Court, Warwick. At 1.00 am on the morning of 17th April, he was awakened by a loud banging on his front door. Opening it, he was astonished to see his son, bedraggled, and apparently soaked to the skin. He said to his father:
“I have killed Ann, and now I have come home to die with you.”
Thinking his son to be either drunk or muddled, the elder Chapman made his son take off his clothes and sent him upstairs to lie down. After a few hours, however, Thomas Chapman convinced his father that he had,indeed, killed Ann,and the air set off together to the police station. PC Satchwell later gave this statement to the magistrates.

Confession

Taking Chapman seriously now, a party of constables took drags – large iron rakes on the end of ropes – and set off for Leam Bridge. They noted that there were signs of a struggle on the canal towpath, and they set about the melancholy business of searching for Ann Chapman. After about twenty minutes they found her, and brought her up out of the water. She was taken back to Warwick on a cart, covered in blankets, and Thomas Chapman was charged with her murder.

As was usual with these matters, a Magistrate’s hearing and a Coroner’s inquest were quickly convened. At the inquest, Mr Bullock, a surgeon reported what he had found.

Inquest

Chapman’s confession was graphic, and told of how his grievances against Ann’s behaviour with other men had been festering for some time:

“Last night I went home about six o’clock, and gave my money to her mother. We lived with her. I stayed at home till went out with my wife. I told her we would go to Leamington and look round there. We started a little after nine o’clock. We called at Page’s near the chapel and had a pint of ale. That is all I had all the night. We looked in the shop windows, and went on to Emscote cut bridge. I said, “Come on this way”. She said she did not like to the water side. She was all of a tremble. I said, “What makes you tremble? What have you to tremble for – I said if she would come along there we could get out the Leam Bridge on the Old Road.

We were talking as we were going along the cut side. I said I was sure the last child was not mine. She said none of the children were mine. She said. “No, you scamp, none of them are yours.” She said, “I have deceived you a good while.” When got under the Leam Bridge I pushed her into the water, and as she was going in she laid hold of me and pulled me into the water, I could not get away from her for a long while. She kept fast hold of me. She had liked to have drowned me. I got away from her and got out of the water, and lay down on the grass. I could not walk I was wet. The water was up my chin. I could not touch the bottom.

I threw my old jacket into the water. I got on the Old Road. man passed me against lawyer Heath’s. I made up my mind to drown her before went out of the house. I went my father’s house about one o’clock, changed clothes and lay down on the bed. I have been away from home three months together. When I last came home she held the last child up and said, “Here’s pattern for you; do you think you could get such a one as this ?”

By the time Chapman’s case eventually came to Warwick Assizes, it had clearly dawned on him that it was likely he was going to be hanged, and it was reported that he had been busy trying to convince the authorities that he was insane. What appears to be play-acting cut no ice with the doctors, and they testified that he was perfectly sane, both then and at the time of Ann’s death. Remarkably, the jury – all male, remember – were sufficiently sympathetic with Chapman’s bruised ego that they found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to life. What became of him, I don’t know. In those days life meant life, and so it may well be that he died in prison.

What became of the Chapman children is another mystery. The 1871 census has Francis and Mary Dodson – Anna’s parents – living at 12 Union Building, both on ‘Parish Relief’. This had nothing to do with church parishes, but was a form of benefit based on what we now call local government wards. In practice, it was patchy, and depended on the ability of a particular parish to levy rates, and then distribute a portion to the needy.

To me, it is absolutely clear that Thomas Chapman murdered his wife. He pushed her into the murky depths of the Warwick and Napton Canal with one purpose, and one purpose only – to pay her out for her infidelity and taunts about the parentage of her children. His bizarre attempts to convince the authorities that he was insane suggest that he knew he was facing the hangman’s noose. Why judge and jury deemed his crime manslaughter baffles me. What became of him, and whether he survived the Victorian prison system, I cannot say. What I do know is that the dark and gloomy spot where the canal passes under Myton Road is forever tainted by the struggles of a young woman pushed down into the unforgiving depths by an angry and violent man.

Thanks again to Simon Dunne and Steve Bap for the photographs

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LAST NOCTURNE . . . Between the covers

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I am a huge fan of MJ Trow’s books. We have some things in common. I don’t share his gifts as a writer but we did go to the same school and we both had long careers as teachers. We certainly share the same acerbic views of the bean counters and politically correct apologists who run schools these days. If you want first hand knowledge of these miserable characters, then read any of Trow’s wonderful Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell series. They are great entertainment – very, very funny, but with a serious side, too.

Like his creator, Peter Maxwell has left the chalk face and retired to his Isle of Wight home, but Trow’s brilliance as a historian still shines in the Grand and Batchelor series, of which Last Nocturne is the seventh. Reviews of some of its predecessors are here, and the new book has the usual dazzling mix of real-life characters – try Oscar Wilde, GF Watts, John Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler for starters –  knockabout humour and murder most foul.

41xgC83kdoLGrand & Batchelor are private investigators based in 1870s London and – much to the relief of James Batchelor, who is a terrible traveller – Last Nocturne has its feet securely on home soil. Grand is from a wealthy New England family, and fought bravely for the Union in The War Between The States, while Batchelor is a journalist by trade. Murder – what else? – is the name of the game in this book, and the victims are, you might say ‘on the game’. Cremorne Gardens were popular pleasure gardens beside the River Thames in Chelsea, but after dark, the ‘pleasure’ sought by its denizens was not of the innocent kind. ‘Ladies of the Night’ are being murdered – poisoned with arsenic – but the killer doesn’t interfere with them, as the saying goes, but instead leaves books by their dead bodies.

As the two investigators become involved in the police hunt for the bookish poisoner, they are still doing the day job which, in this case, is being employed by Grand’s fellow countryman Mr Whistler – he of the painting of his mum – to dig out any dirt they can find on art critic John Ruskin who, ‘as any fule no’ (to quote Nigel Molesworth) wrote, of one of Whistler’s paintings, “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”


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Trow has great fun
with John Ruskin’s back story, particularly his disastrous marriage to Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray , and the disastrous first night of their honeymoon when he was so traumatised by her luxuriant pubic hair that he was unable to continue with his marital duties. The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais clearly had no such qualms, as he married Effie in 1855, and they produced eight children.

The search for the killer, however, continues, but G & B, along with the police, remain mystified. They even resort to a seance involving the well-known society medium, Miss Florence Cook, whose reputation has gone before her:

“The murmurs from the guests were mixed, but Florence was used to that. Speaking for herself, she couldn’t really see why people were always so surprised when she was from time to time exposed as a fraud. What did they expect? That the dead would turn up on cue to talk to people about the other side? Why would Uncle Norman come back to a seedy scullery in Acton to tell his niece that it was all very l, he was at peace, and he’d been talking to Beethoven only the other day, who told him to tell little Bessie to carry on with her piano lessons?”

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Eventually G & B solve the mystery, but rather more by accident than design and the book comes to a dramatic and entertaining conclusion. Last Nocturne is published by Severn House, and is available in hardback and as a Kindle.

NO GOOD DEED . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-13 at 19.14.13First, a word about the author, Ewan Lawrie (left). He comes to the book world by a rather different route than many of his fellow writers. There cannot be many authors who served for nigh on a quarter of a century in the armed forces – in this case, the RAF – and then turned to writing. His first novel, Gibbous House, (2017) introduced us to a gentleman called Alasdair Moffat, who rejoices in the appellation Moffat the Magniloquent. In that novel he was a prosperous and successful criminal in Victorian London, but now, a decade later, he  – having fallen on hard times – has relocated to America, along with countless other folk of the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “tempest-tossed”. Unlike them, however, he is not seeking the “lamp beside the golden door”, but a rather better place in which to exercise his criminal talents.

It is 1861, and America is on the verge of the disastrous conflict which will shape the nation’s future for decades to come. Moffat has fetched up in St Louis, pretty much stony broke. With an unerring talent for sniffing out trouble, he murders a man named Anson Northrup, assumes his identity and, in order to pay off a brothel bill he cannot afford, accepts the task of delivering a mysterious package further down the Mississippi River. He boards the steam-driven riverboat The Grand Turk. The package he is carrying contains operational details of what was known as The Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses established in America used by slaves to escape into freedom. Moffat, of course, being British, takes the metaphor literally, and it is some time before he realises that he is not carrying a conventional railway timetable, and that the late Anson Northrup is a key figure in a plot to steal silver bullion from the Mint in New Orleans – the major city in the state of Louisiana, which had just seceded from the United States.

NGD1In his guise as Northrup (although not everyone is fooled) Moffat meets several larger-than-life and almost grotesque fictional characters, and lurches from one crisis to the next, but one of the most spectacular parts of the novel is when he meets Marie Laveau, a real life New Orleans character renowned for her mystical qualities, as well as her expertise in the black arts of voodoo.

Lawrie is an entertaining writer who has clearly done his historical homework, but also adds a heady combination of whimsy, smart jokes and improbable situations to make for an entertaining read. The rather old fashioned literary term picaresque came into my mind as I was reading this, but I needed to check what it meant. The ever-present Google says that it is:

“relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.”

I think that pretty much sums up No Good Deed. The novel succeeds not through the particular integrity of the plot, but more through the relentlessly entertaining episodes, and the grim allure of Moffat himself. There is more than a touch of George MacDonald Fraser and his likeable coward Harry Flashman about this book, and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that series of novels. No Good Deed is published by Unbound Digital, and is out now.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN . . . A Warwickshire murder (part one)

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In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described the Warwickshire village of Moreton Morrell like this:

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The 1881 census records that living in a cottage on Morrell Farm in the village were the Dodd family.

Census

Just six years later, Charlotte Dodd and her daughter Fanny were to be the central figures in a murder case which shocked the country. Fanny Dodd was evidently something of a beauty. In the court case which decided her fate she was described thus:

“The younger prisoner, whose appearance is somewhat prepossessing….”

By 1886, Fanny had taken a very common career route for young women from poor backgrounds – she went into service. Wealthy families had servants, and the Trueloves of Stoneleigh – a village between Leamington and Coventry – were no exception, and Fanny was their domestic servant. Stoneleigh is the site of a Cistercian abbey, but it suffered the fate of so many similar institutions at the hands of Henry VIII. The Leigh family had acquired the site in 1558, and in the eighteenth century, a grand house was built on the site, and Benjamin Truelove was a tenant farmer of the current Lord Leigh.

Stoneleigh had a Co-operative Stores, and it was managed by William Hewitt. His son, Joseph, had learned the bakers’ art, and had a comfortable life in the family home. At some point in 1886 the 18 year-old lad had come into contact with Fanny Dodd, a couple of years older than he, and something of a beauty. Evidence given at Fanny’s trial suggests that on Whit Sunday  – 13th June – the pair had gone for a walk together, and somewhere near Pipe’s Mill – a water mill on the River Sowe – one thing had let to another, and the couple had, well, coupled (please feel free to substitute your favourite euphemism).

Getting pregnant was certainly not in the job description of domestic servants in Victorian times, so at some point later in 1886 Fanny returned to Morton Morrell. On 8th March, 1887, Fanny gave birth to a healthy girl. The child was duly registered, and her name was Daisy Hewitt Dodd.

At this point there was no evidence to show that Fanny Dodd had any feelings other than love for her daughter. Indeed, records showed that she had taken Daisy to nearby Wellesbourne to be vaccinated – probably against snallpox.

On 15th March, Fanny sent a letter to the young man she believed to be the father of her child.

Morton Morrell, 15th March.

Dear Joe
l dare say you will surprised hear that I was confined last Tuesday—a little girl. Of course it has come from last Whitsunday, when of course you know what took place by Pipe’s Mill. It comes exactly from that time. At least I know it belongs you, because there has not been any transaction between me and any man since I went with you then. Dear Joe, I hope you will come to some arrangement. Once, when you asked me, I said not, but I did not know for certain then, but I knew before I left Trueloves for I had gone half my time nearly when I left her. I hope you will either have me or come to some pairing arrangement without going to any further trouble. I ought to have written to you before now, but I kept it from everyone, not even my mother knew I was in the family way until the child was born on Tuesday. I am very weak and can scarcely scribble this letter. I ought to have written to you before. I very sorry it ever occurred. I think the child will own you anywhere. It is a strong healthy looking baby, and likely to live. I think have told you all at present. Believe me, yours sincerely Lizzie, or, as they call me, Miss Dodd.

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Joseph Hewitt was evidently not prepared to settle down to married life. A couple of days later, he replied. The substance of what he wrote was never recorded, but one can guess what he wrote, judging by Fanny’s reply:

Mr J. Hewitt – I am writing to thank you for the money that you sent me, which I received quite safe last Tuesday morning, but I was quite surprised at the abusing letter you sent me: and as to saying the child belongs to Charley, that quite untrue, for I am quite sure it belongs to you, and if you do not continue to pay the money I shall swear it on you, because I have things against you to show plain proof. You know you bought me gin and came to meet me with it, but I didn’t take it. and then you sent me that 10s. That has done it at once if I was to swear you. I shall be sure to get pay, for Lord Leigh only asks the girl a few questions and if I tell him you cannot get over it, and it will be nothing but the truth. The time will tell anyone; it comes from Whit-Sunday, at least. I never had any dealings with anybody else, and if old Joe says he can prove it, I should like him to do so. And as for my carrying on here with chaps, I have only spoken to one since I left Stoneleigh. I can get that proved by the people at Moreton Morrell, and can get it proved that those people that told you are very great liars. If they were to look at home and themselves, they have no room to talk about me, and as for you calling me a prostitute, I think you had better mind, or I shall come over and see you and some one else too. I shall expect to hear from you again on the eighth of next month, or I shall swear it was you. The child belongs to you. I should never have said it was yours if you did not get me into trouble, and now you must help me to get out it. People were great liars to say we knocked French’s wheat down, and if we had, the child did not come from that, but we did not. F. Dodd.

Several truths emerge from this exchange. Firstly, Fanny and Joe had enjoyed a brief but tumultuous sexual relationship. Secondly, Fanny had what we might call something of a reputation – she was clearly a very attractive and passionate young woman. Thirdly, Joe Hewitt had been swept off his feet but, while being prepared to send money for the upkeep of his daughter, saw no future in a long term relationship with Fanny Dodd.

IN PART TWO

A gruesome discovery…
A brown paper clue
A trip to Birmingham


THE ART OF DYING … Between the covers

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Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman (pictured below). They  live in Glasgow,  slightly less genteel – at least in popular image – than Edinburgh, where this novel is set. It novel weaves together two stories, both of which have have factual origins. One strand deals with an horrific serial killer and her victims, while the other story is seen through the eyes of a young doctor in the middle years of the 19th century. The novel is a follow-up to the 2018 publication, The Way of All Flesh.

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SimpsonThis is not a book for those squeamish about medical details – especially those common in the 19th century. There are tumours, painful deaths both lingering and sudden, surgical procedures that involve much guesswork and hopeful blundering about the human body – externally and internally. If you are still with me, then the story is this. It is 1849, and we first meet young Dr Will Raven when he is involved in a street brawl in Berlin, where he has been studying. He survives the encounter, and returns to Edinburgh, where he is reunited with his former mentor, Dr James Simpson. Simpson – a real-life character, pictured –  is highly regarded, but also the object of much jealousy from less gifted physicians, and is facing charges of malpractice brought about by his envious peers.

Raven had hoped to find an earlier object of his affections – a young woman called Sarah, who also worked with Dr Simpson – available for further dalliance, but in the interim, she has married another doctor, Archie Fisher. He is terminally ill, and as both Will and Sarah are aware of this, the sad fact adds a certain piquancy to the relationship.

TAOD cover2Away from the relative gentility of the Simpson household, we have a young woman who moves in very different circles. She has suffered a brutal and traumatic childhood. This has either directed her on a devilish pathway, or kindles a spark which was already there but, either way, she has become a murderer. The writers employ an obvious – but effective – counterpoint here, in that Sarah Fisher desires to become a doctor, while Mary Dempster seeks to hone her skills as a killer. Contemporary society believes that a woman cannot possibly be a success in either occupation.

It takes a while for Will and Sarah to come round to thinking the unthinkable – that Mary Dempster is a clever and a successful killer. Because we, as readers, have had the advantage of reading first-person-viewpoint chapters, we know that she is a devious and malevolent individual. Yes, she has had a terrible upbringing, involving degradation and abuse, but not all orphans who suffered at the hands of Victorian institutions turned out to be serial killers.

As I said earlier, if you are the kind or reader who would shudder at the thought of reading a cut-by-cut account of an early surgical attempt to save a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, then this may not be the book for you. Bolder souls will enjoy a gripping and twisty murder mystery shot through plenty of gore and passion. The Art of Dying came out in hardback in August 2019. This paperback edition is published by Black Thorn and is out now.

SMOKE CHASE . . . Between the covers

Jack Callan’s debut novel Smoke Chase introduces John Chase, a six foot, sixteen stone army veteran of colonial wars, now working with the embryonic Special Branch, a police department set up to combat the violent threat of Fenian revolutionaries in late 19th century London. It is the winter of 1885 and, as always, Chase is operating very much undercover, dressed as a working man.

smoke001After a long night shift, Chase is having his breakfast in a cafe when he is alerted to a bomb going off in the vicinity of nearby Tobacco Dock. When he arrives on the scene he finds a dead man – or, at least, what remains of him – but in what is clearly a set-up he is pounced on by a number of police officers, and hustled off in manacles to 26 Old Jewry, the HQ of The City of London Police.

Despite providing his warrant card, Chase – and a union official called Burns are taken to a rotting prison hulk moored in the Thames. Chase soon worked out that he and Burns are being targeted because they have come too close to a huge web of corruption involving a gang of bent import-export fraudsters aided and abetted by senior police officers.

Chase overpowers his guards and escapes to the shore where he begins to plot the downfall of Mordecai and Elisha Smithson, the gangsters who are in charge of the smuggling ring. We have pretty much everything served up from this point on including, in no particular order, rape, torture, Russian thugs, suicide, enough stabbings and shootings to fill a morgue, families being kidnapped and depraved assassins. Participants fall like flies, even unto the last paragraph of the last page

John Chase is rather like a modern-day Bulldog Drummond, and the novel, despite the gore, harks back to a more innocent time when characters like Dick Barton overcame even the most beastly assailant – “with one bound he was free!”

Jack Callan has certainly done his homework, however. The topographical background – London’s dockland when it was it was a rough and tumble working environment, the Lea Valley and the sordid nooks and crannies of East London – is enthusiastically painted,and we even have fleeting acquaintance with the music hall singer Bessie Bellwood and the women’s rights campaigners Annie Besant and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

women

To borrow a cliché beloved of football commentators, Jack Callan leaves nothing in the changing room. Smoke Chase has enough blood and thunder to satisfy the most demanding addict. Callan’s debut novel is published by Matador and is out now.

For more novels set in Victorian England,
just click on the image of Her Majesty.

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