Search

fullybooked2017

Tag

London

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

wartime header

T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

PUTC banner

Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

PUTC footer

NOTHING ELSE REMAINS . . . Between the covers

NER header

WFBTCWe first met London’s Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles in Robert Scragg’s debut novel What Falls Between The Cracks (review here) almost exactly a year ago. This description of the pair is from that book:

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

NERPorter is still haunted by the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident and, like all good fictional DIs, he is viewed by his bosses – in particular the officious desk jockey Milburn – as mentally suspect. He is forced to go for a series of counselling sessions with the force’s tame psychologist, but after one hurried and fruitless encounter, he becomes totally immersed in a puzzling case which involves an old friend of his, Max Brennan. Brennan has arranged to meet his long-estranged father for the first time, but the older man fails to make the rendezvous. When Brennan’s girlfriend is abducted, he turns to Porter for help.

The heavy stone that Porter turns over in his search for Brennan’s missing father reveals all kinds of nasty scuttling things that recoil at the daylight. Principal among these is a list of missing people, all businessmen, whose common denominator is that they have each resigned from their jobs with minimal notice given, citing personal health issues as the reason.

Meanwhile, Styles has a secret. His wife is expecting their first child and she has grave misgivings about her husband continuing as Porter’s partner, as their business puts them all too often – and quite literally – in the line of fire. Understandably, she recoils at the possibility of raising the child alone with the painful duty, at some point, of explaining to the toddler about the father they never knew. Styles has accepted her demand to transfer to something less dangerous, but as the Brennan Affair ratchets up in intensity, he just can’t seem to find the right moment to break the news to his boss.

This is a well written and entertaining police procedural with all the necessary tropes of the genre – maverick cop, desk-bound boss, chaotic personal lives, grimy city background and labyrinthine plot. Naturally, Porter finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing businessmen, but this point was reached with a fair few pages left to go, so clearly something else is about to happen. Sure enough, it does, and it is clever plot twist which I certainly didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg may be a relative novice in the crime fiction stakes but, to mangle a metaphor, he casts his red herrings with the ease and accuracy of an expert.

Nothing Else Remains is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Allison

MURDER AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM . . . Between the covers

MATBM header

MATBMLondon. 1894. The British Museum has become a crime scene. A distinguished academic and author has been brutally stabbed to death. Not in the hushed corridors, not in the dusty silence of The Reading Room, and not even in one of the stately exhibition halls, under the stony gaze of Assyrian gods and Greek athletes. No, Professor Lance Pickering has been found in the distinctly less grand cubicle of one of the museum’s … ahem …. conveniences, the door locked from inside, and the unfortunate professor slumped over the porcelain.

The police officers from Scotland Yard have been and gone, baffled by the killing. Sir Jasper Stone, Executive Curator-in-Charge at the museum, has called in Daniel Wilson, private consulting detective and his partner, in all senses of the word, Miss Abigail Fenton. Abigail is no stranger to the world of antiquities and academia, as she is a distinguished archaeologist. Wilson has pedigree, as he was a former Metropolitan Police officer, one of the investigative team assembled by Chief Inspector Fred Abberline. Abberline who retired two years earlier is still remembered for his Jack The Ripper investigations, and for his part in the Cleveland Street Scandal, where a raid on a male homosexual brothel was followed by a notorious government cover-up in order to protect some of the brothel’s VIP clients.

MATBM body text

Jim-EldridgeThis is a highly readable mystery with two engaging central characters, a convincing late Victorian London setting, and a plot which takes us this way and that before Daniel and Abigail uncover the tragic truth behind the murders. Jim Eldridge (right) is a veteran writer for radio, television and film as well as being the author of historical fiction, children’s novels and educational books. Murder At The British Museum is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.

flourish

THE BEAR PIT . . . Between the covers

TBP header

Political disagreement in modern mainland Britain is largely non-violent, with the dishonorable exceptions of Islamic extremists and – further back – Irish Republican terror. For sure, tempers fray, abuse is hurled and fists are shaken. Just occasionally an egg, or maybe a milkshake, is thrown. You mightn’t think it, given the paroxysms of fury displayed on social media, but sticks and stones are rarely seen. Scottish writer SG MacLean in her series featuring the Cromwellian enforcer Damian Seeker reminds us that we have a violent history.

The Bear PitIn the last of England’s civil wars, forces opposed to King Charles 1st and his belief in the divine right of kings have won the day. 1656. Charles has been dead these seven years and his son, another Charles, has escaped by the skin of his teeth after an abortive military campaign in 1651. He has been given sanctuary ‘across the water’, but his agents still believe they can stir up the population against his father’s nemesis – Oliver Cromwell, The Lord Protector.

In London, Damian Seeker is a formidable foe to those who yearn for the return of the monarchy. He is physically intimidating, has a fearsome reputation for violence but, like many more modern heroes, Seeker has a fragile personal life. To put Seeker into a modern fictional context, he is Jack Reacher and Harry Callaghan in breeches, stockings and with leather gauntlets on his hands. He has a primed and cocked flintlock pistol by his side, but doesn’t trust modern technology. His weapons of choice are his own fists and a brutal medieval mace.

The story begins with the chance discovery of a mutilated corpse in an outhouse south of the river, in Lambeth – the seventeenth century version of 1970s Soho. The dead man was chained and appears to have been savaged by a dog, except that dogs don’t have five razor sharp claws on each paw. Seeker has to accept the impossible truth. The man has been mauled by a bear. But hasn’t bear-baiting been banned, and haven’t the remaining beasts been removed and killed? Like other practices banned by the zealous moral guardians of Cromwell’s government, bear-baiting and dog-fighting have simply – to use a totally anachronistic metaphor – slipped beneath the radar.

While Seeker searches for his bear, he has another major task on his hands. A group of what we now call terrorists is in London, and they mean to cut off the very head of what they view as England’s Hydra by assassinating Oliver Cromwell himself. Rather like Clint Eastwood in In The Line of Fire and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, Seeker has one job, and that is to ensure that the No.1 client remains secure. Of course, history MacLeantells us that Seeker succeeds, but along the way SG MacLean (right) makes sure we have a bumpy ride through the mixture of squalor and magnificence that is 17th century London.

McLean’s research is impeccable. She provides us with a clutch of recognisable real-life characters, and even the desperadoes who do their best to kill Cromwell are actual historical figures. She allows herself the luxury of a little what-iffery with the identity of the mysterious Boyes, ringleader of the plot, but this is all great fun and you would have to be a dull old thing not to be carried along with this excellent historical adventure.

The Bear Pit is published by Quercus and is out now. The Fully Booked review of the precious Damien Seeker novel, The Black Friar, is here.

Characters

THE ARTEMIS FILE . . . Between the covers

TAF header

I redt takes a very ingenious – not to say devious mind – to fashion a fiction plot which meshes together a whole bagful of disparate elements to make a satisfying whole that challenges the imagination but does not exceed it in possibility. Adam Loxley has done just that in his latest thriller The Artemis File. George Wiggins is Mr Ordinary. He lives in what would have been called, years ago, a bijou residence in the twee Kentish town of Tenterden. He is not Mr Stupid, however. He travels into ‘town’ each day to sit at his desk in Fleet Street where he composes the daily crossword for The Chronicle under his pseudonym Xerxes. Aficionados know that in reality, all that is left of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street are the buildings, and the use of the term to denote popular journalism, but we can forgive Loxley for having the good, old-fashioned Chronicle hanging on by the skin of its teeth when all its fellows have decamped to Wapping or soulless suburbs somewhere off a dual carriageway.

front-cover-finalWhen George has a rather startling experience in his local pub after a couple of pints of decent beer, the other elements of the story – MI5, the CIA, Russian agents, immaculately dressed but ruthless Whitehall civil servants and, most crucially, the most infamous unsolved incident of the late 20th century – are soon thrown into the mix. Such is George’s conformity, it is easily compromised, and he is blackmailed into writing a crossword, the answers to which are deeply significant to a very select group of individuals who sit at the centres of various spiders’ webs where they tug the strands which control the national security of the great powers.

 

G rdeorge Wiggins might have been easily duped and he has few means to fight back, but he recruits an old chum from the Chronicle whose knowledge of the historical events of the 1990s proves key to unraveling the mystery of who wanted the crossword published – and why. While the pair rescue a dusty file from an obscure repository and pore over its contents, elsewhere a much more visceral struggle is playing out. A ruthless MI5 contract ‘fixer’ called Craven is engaged on a courtly dance of death with a former CIA agent, current American operatives and their Russian counterparts.

One of the joys of this book is Loxley’s delight in guiding us through various parts of England that he clearly loves. Winchester, the Vale of Itchen, various ‘secret’ London places – we track the characters as they play out the fateful – and frequently bloody – drama against fascinating backdrops. We are linked into real events such as the mysterious death of intelligence ‘spook’ Gareth Williams, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. We learn that the truth behind the events of 31st August 1997 has become an chip in an international poker game with world peace at stake. Just when we think that things have been wrapped up sweetly, however, Loxley has one final ace to play, and he lays it down with, literally, the last few words of the book.

The Artemis File is published by Matador and is available now. Adam Loxley lives in the Weald of Kent. Other than creative writing his passions are making music, world cinema and contemporary art. The first book in this series was The Teleios Ring, and the concluding novel The Oedipus Gate is currently in manuscript.

matador

THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

TWFK header

TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

TWFK footer

THE SERPENT’S MARK . . . Between the covers

TSM header042

Modern readers don’t need history degrees to understand the savagery with which followers of different religious views are prepared to torture, maim and kill one another. Sunni against Shia across the Middle East; Roman Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland; both are all too recent in memory.

TSM coverLondon, 1591. Queen Elizabeth has ruled England for over three decades, but the religious fires lit by her father and then – literally – stoked by the Catholic zealots driven on her half-sister Mary, may just be glowing embers now, but the mutual fear and bitterness between followers of the Pope and members of the English church are only ever a breath away from igniting more conflict. Just a few short miles from England’s eastern coast, war still rages between the rebels of The Seventeen Provinces of The Low Countries and the armies of King Philip of Spain.

Nicholas Shelby is a young physician, brought up in the rural calm of Suffolk but, in adulthood, trained in medicine. He has practised his skill among London’s poor but also in the battlefields of Flanders, dressing wounds, binding shattered limbs and offering comfort to the dying. During a dramatic episode in the service of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s spymaster, Shelby has courted death, and endured the trauma of being unable to prevent his wife and child both perishing in childbirth. He has survived a period of suicidal alcoholism and is now slowly putting his life back together in the company of Bianca Merton an Italian born apothecary and keeper of a boisterous tavern – The Jackdaw – on the southern shore of the River Thames.

The arrival of a Venetian ship on Bankside brings not only Bianca’s cousin Bruno Barrani but a violent encounter in The Jackdaw which leaves the Venetian near death with a terrible head wound. Shelby ministers to the grievously wounded Italian, but is then summoned to an unwelcome reunion with the saturnine and deeply dangerous Robert Cecil. Shelby is already aware that Samuel, the young son of his former military commander Sir Joshua Wylde is afflicted with The Falling Sickness (epilepsy) and is being tended in rural Gloucestershire by a controversial Swiss doctor, Arcampora. Shelby has already agreed to give Wylde a second opinion, but when Cecil offers him a large sum of money to do exactly the same thing, he welcomes the opportunity to both repay a favour and line his pockets.

With Shelby is away in Gloucestershire, Bianca discovers that her cousin has brought to England a coded message concealed in the lining of an elegant and expensive pair of gloves. Shelby returns with serious concerns about the welfare of Samuel, and when he and Bianca decode the mysterious message, they realise to their alarm that they have uncovered a plot to use a hitherto-unknown child of Mary Tudor to undermine the rule of Queen Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism.

SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482This is a riveting and convincing political thriller that just happens to be set in the sixteenth century. The smells and bells of Elizabethan England are captured in rich and sometime florid prose, while Nicholas and Bianca are perfect protagonists; she, passionate, instinctive and emotionally sensitive; he, brave, resourceful and honest, but with the true Englishman’s reluctance to seize the romantic moment when he should be squeezing it with all his might. SW Perry (right) has clearly done his history homework and he takes us on a fascinating tour through an Elizabethan physic garden, as well as letting us gaze in horror at some of the superstitious nonsense that passed for medicine five centuries ago.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 21.06.14is a reference to the Rod of Asclepius, which was a staff around which a serpent entwined itself. This Greek symbol has always been associated with healing and medicine, existing even in our time as the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. SW Perry’s novel is published by Corvus and is out now.

 

Rod043

 

THEIR LITTLE SECRET . . . Between the covers

TLS header

mark-billinghamLondon copper DI Tom Thorne has been entertaining us since his debut in Sleepyhead (2001). His creator, Mark Billingham, (left) has developed an enviably reliable repertory company of other players who share the stage with the main man. There is his best mate Phil Hendricks, a pathologist who, despite being gay, supporting Arsenal against Thorne’s beloved Spurs and having piercings in places where most folk don’t even have places, is the voice of sanity in Thorne’s often chaotic world. Thorne’s love interest (from whom he is currently living apart) is Helen, another police officer, but one who works in the traumatic world of child protection. Nicola Tanner is Thorne’s professional partner and they have history, but not one that either reflects on with much pleasure. Tanner’s partner Susan was brutally killed in a previous episode, and her death hangs over the pair like a pall.

Their Little Secret begins with the much-loved trope of an apparent suicide which is viewed with suspicion by the central character. This time, however, it is slightly different. When a woman goes fatally head-to-head with an underground train, there is no suspicion that she was physically pushed, but Thorne believes that something traumatic – and criminal – tipped her over the edge in both sense of the phrase. He discovers that she had been targeted by a conman who had relieved her of a large sum of money and then disappeared, leaving her heartbroken, ashamed of her own gullibility and with her self-respect shredded. Despite the reluctance of his boss to spend any more time (and money) on the case, Thorne discovers that Philippa Goodwin is not the first victim of the conman.

TLSIn an ostensibly unconnected narrative thread, Billingham introduces us to a Sarah, a vulnerable single mum who is anxious to gain the approval of other mums with whom she waits at the primary school gate twice each day. They seem confident, successful and financially comfortable. Sarah tries to join in with their daily sojourn at a pretentious ‘artisan’ coffee shop after the morning school run, but she still feels like the outsider. Her world is just herself and her son Jamie, and she struggles to compete with the gossip and banter that fly like sparks between Karen, Caroline, Savita and Heather. Until. Until the day when, sitting apart at her own table in HazBeanz, Sarah is chatted up by distinctly fanciable slightly older fellow. Almost instantly, Sarah finds the others anxious to swap phone numbers in return for daily updates about the new romance.

So, we can all see where this is going, yes? Sarah is about to become the latest victim of the romantic predator who Thorne and Tanner will eventually track down and bring to justice? At this point, I will disengage from the plot so as not to spoil things. Suffice it to say that Billingham plays the Pied Piper, and we are the innocent children of Hamelin.

If you are new to the world of Tom Thorne, don’t dismiss this book as just another police procedural. Yes, the atmosphere of the Incident Room, the evidence gathering, the financial pressures and the grim fare of the police canteen – everything is just as it should be, authentic and convincing. But Billingham gives us so much more. Thorne is, in some ways, unlovely. He can be insensitive, self-centred and, it has to be said, something of a slob. His impulsiveness has got him – and others – into bother on more than one occasion, and as for his musical obsession with the lonesome highway world of Hank Williams, you must be your own judge. Earlier novels in the series told of Thorne’s impotent distress at the decline of his father as dementia took hold and turned a fine mind into mush. As middle age peaks and ‘the other side’ beckons, he still dreams of his mum and dad. He is not alone.

There is poetry within the pages of any Tom Thorne novel. It may be brutally comic, and it may be poignant and stark. Thorne recalls the first suicide he had to attend:

“It had been a teenage girl, that first one. A slip of a thing dangling from the branch of an oak tree in Victoria Park. A ripped blue dress and legs like sticks and the muddy heels of her trainers kissing.”

On a grimly humorous note, Thorne/Billingham has a sour take on the pretentiousness of the middle class London enclave of Shoreditch:

“ It was all a little ….full of itself for his liking. ‘Dirty’ burgers, whatever they were, and shops knocking out overpriced tat that was probably meant to be ironic. A few too many gastropubs serving parsnip dust or garlic foam and more artisan bakeries than you could shake a shiitake mushroom at.”

Their Little Secret is a masterpiece of misdirection, suspense and contains as convincing a portrayal of insanity as I have read in many a long year. Tom Thorne is the perfect hero for our troubled times. Emotionally and professionally, he ploughs a lonely furrow, but his honesty and – sometimes clumsy –  care for those he loves are deeply moving. Their Little Secret is published by Little, Brown and will be available from 2nd May.

More of Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham here.

Billingham Books

WATCHERS OF THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

WOTD header

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.

81Bz9Hu0AoLNote: 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.

Press reportAlso 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.

WOTD footer

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑