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Victorian England

PEOPLE OF ABANDONED CHARACTER . . . Between the covers

There can be no historical event – save, perhaps, the assassination of John F Kennedy – which has attracted more theories, speculation and books, both fiction and non-fiction, as the killings attributed to Jack The Ripper in the autumn of 1888. My feature JACK THE RIPPER . . . In fiction, from the early days of this website, looks at just a few novels which have retold the tale.

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Now, debut novelist Clare Whitfield has her moment on the stage with People Of Abandoned Character. Susannah Chapman is a rather unusual woman, in her early thirties, who has known at first hand the dreadful deprivation of that part of the east End of London known as The Nichol. The contemporary map of the area (below) grades streets with colours according to the level of poverty, with red indicating relatively comfortable residents through blue to black – the depths of squalor.

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Susannah has no recollection of her father, and a memory of her mother so horrifying that she only turns to it in her nightmares. She is eventually rescued by her grandparents who take her to live with them in Reading. She chooses to become a nurse, and is accepted as a trainee at The London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, seen below in a 19thC photograph.

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When Susannah attracts the attention of a young doctor, Thomas Lancaster and, after a whirlwind romance, she leaves The London as Mrs Lancaster to become the mistress of a delightful riverside home in Chelsea. Mistress? Not quite. The first sign that all may not be well is that Thomas Lancaster has a housekeeper named Mrs Wiggs, and the lady is a graduate of the Mrs Danvers school of domestic management. Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but fans of Judith Anderson and Rebecca will know what I mean.

The early passion and harmony of the marriage soon dissipates, and Susannah begins to be disturbed both by her husband’s violent sexual demands and his frequent nocturnal absences, from which he returns feverish and dishevelled. Soon, the narrative of the novel begins to synchronise with what we know about the actual Ripper murders. Ripperologists can take the roll call of well-known characters safe in the knowledge that The Gang’s All Here. We meet the victims themselves, of course, but also the walk-on parts such as the actor Richard Mansfield, John Pizer, the Police Surgeon Dr Phillips and dear old Fred Abberline put in an appearance.

People Of Abandoned Character is a bravura piece of story-telling which gleefully rises above a tale of real-life horror which, by its very familiarity, has lost some of its sting. We eventually learn that Susannah is not quite the put-upon damsel in distress she might want us to believe in. The conclusion of the story is as astonishing and enterprising a solution to the eternal Ripper mystery as I have ever read, and fans of Gothick gore and melodrama will certainly not be disappointed. It is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

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THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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THE TIN GOD . . . Between the covers

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“And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for — with the rates.”

Verse two of the celebrated – and often parodied – ballad poem by the Victorian campaigning journalist George R Sims, In The Workhouse, Christmas Day. Most of us older folk know the poem and its melancholy message. An old man is sitting down to his Christmas dinner in the workhouse, but one memory is too much for him, and he angrily relates the tale of his late wife, who was forced to die of hunger on the streets because of the harshness of the workhouse regulations. The relevance of this to Chris Nickson’s The Tin God lies in the first line of the verse above, because the heroine of the story is the wife of Leeds copper Tom Harper, and she is standing for election to the workhouse Board of Guardians.

So? This Leeds in October 1897, and women simply did not stand for office of any kind, and when Annabelle Harper, along with several colleagues from the fledgling Suffrage movement decide to enter the election, it is a controversial decision, because the concept of women migrating from their proper places, be they the bedroom, the withdrawing room or the kitchen, is anathema to most of the ‘gentlemen’ in Leeds society.

TTG coverOutraged leading articles appear in local newspapers, but someone believes that the sword – or something equally violent – is mightier than the pen, and a homemade bomb destroys a church hall just before Annabelle Harper is due to speak to her supporters. The caretaker is tragically killed by the explosion, and matters go from bad to worse when more bombs are found, and several of the women candidates are threatened.

Superintendent Tom Harper is already involved in investigating the criminal aspects of the case, but when the husband of one of the women is murdered while sitting at his own kitchen table, the affair becomes a hunt for a murderer. The killer leaves a few tantalising clues, and Harper becomes conflicted between devoting every hour that God sends to tracking down the killer – and keeping his wife from becoming the next victim.

Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished. We have an intriguing sub-plot involving a smuggling gang importing illegal spirits into Leeds, authentic dialogue, matchless historical background and, best of all, a few hours under the spell of one of the best story tellers in modern fiction.

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You want more? Well, it’s there. Nickson is a fine musician and a distinguished music journalist, and he cunningly works into the plot one of the more notable musical names associated with Leeds and West Yorkshire, the folksong collector Frank Kidson (above). The killer shares Kidson’s passion for the old songs – if not his humanity and feelings for his fellow human beings – and he leaves handwritten fragments of English songs at the scenes of his attacks.

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The Tin God is published by Severn House and is available now. It will be obvious that I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson’s writing, and if you click the images below, you can read the reviews for some of his other excellent novels.

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AN OXFORD SCANDAL … Between the covers

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AOSOxford, 1895. The spires may well be dreaming, but for Anthony Jardine, Fellow of St Gabriel’s College, the nightmare is just beginning. His drug addicted wife is found stabbed to death, slumped in the corner of a horse tram carriage. His mourning is shattered when his mistress is also found dead – murdered in the house she shares with her elderly eccentric husband. With a background story of an archaeological discovery threatening to shake the English religious establishment to its very roots, Inspector James Antrobus must avoid the temptation to make Jardine a swift and easy culprit. Helped by the uncanny perception of Sophia Jex-Blake, a pioneering woman doctor, Antrobus finds the answer to the killings lies in London, just forty miles away on the railway.

norman-russellNorman Russell (right) is a writer and academic, who has had fifteen novels published. He is an acknowledged authority on Victorian finance and its reflections in the literature of the period, and his book on the subject, The Novelist and Mammon, was published by Oxford University Press in 1986. He is a graduate of Oxford and London Universities. After military service in the West Indies, he became a teacher of English in a large Liverpool comprehensive school, where he stayed for twenty-six years, retiring early to take up writing as a second career.

Russell skilfully avoids the trap into which some well-intentioned historical fiction writers fall – that comprising copious and elaborate period detail which chokes the plot itself. Yes, all the Victoriana boxes are ticked; we have horse-drawn trams, the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ ambience of prosperous homes, extravagant dinner menus – and even the doomed but heroic consumptive so beloved of period painters and dramatists. Despite all these familiar tropes, the search for the killer is a genuine whodunnit, and the narrative rattles along nicely.

Not the least of the pleasures of An Oxford Scandal for me was to be reminded of the prickly – not to say downright malevolent – relationships between various versions of the Christian church. Russell enjoys a joke at the expense of the Roman Catholics, the ‘High’ Anglicans, and their humourless cousins in the ‘Low’ Church of England. The joke will probably be shared by just the few of us but I do remember, back in the day when I thought such things were important, that St Ebbe’s church in Oxford was a place to be studiously avoided by those of us who liked a whiff of incense with our worship.

Although Inspector Antrobus ends the novel frail, housebound, and trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief, it looks as though he may survive to undertake another adventure as a consultant detective. I do hope so. The earlier books in the series were An Oxford Anomaly and An Oxford Tragedy. An Oxford Scandal is published by Matador, and is available here.

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ON COPPER STREET … Between the covers

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When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy. Give him a battered bowler hat, steel shod boots and a rough woollen suit and transport him back to the 1890s. No-one would spare him a second glance. Fans of his books telling the story a determined Leeds copper, Tom Harper, will know this already. In previous novels in the series, Harper’s common sense, decency and compassion have shone through to highlight one of the more original creations in historical crime fiction.

32970425On Copper Street opens in grim fashion, with death and disfigurement. The dead pass in contrasting fashion. Socialist activist Tom Maguire dies in private misery, stricken by pneumonia and unattended by any of the working people whose status and condition he championed. The death of petty crook Henry White is more sudden, extremely violent, but equally final. Having only just been released from the forbidding depths of Armley Gaol, he is found on his bed with a fatal stab wound. If all this isn’t bad enough, two children working in a city bakery have been attacked by a man who threw acid in their faces. The girl will be marked for life, but at least she still has her sight. The last thing the poor lad saw – or ever will see – is the momentary horror of a man throwing acid at him. His sight is irreparably damaged.

As Inspector Tom Harper and his colleagues throw themselves into the search for the killer of White and the brute who maimed the two children, there is a dramatic twist in Harper’s professional life. As he draws a much deserved breath from his energetic pursuit of the villains, he realises that his boss, Superintendent Bob Kendall is not a well man. The much respected Kendall confides in him that he is grievously ill, and will be relinquishing the position so that he can go home and await death. Harper is shocked and saddened by the revelation, but even more taken aback when he learns that he is lined up to be Kendall’s successor.

Death continues to stalk the streets of Leeds, and the killings all seem related to the original death of Henry White. A mysterious man known only as JD seems central to the hunt for the killer, but things take a calamitous turn for the worse when an ambitious and popular policeman is shot dead on the street, seemingly because he was close to identifying the mysterious JD.

Sadly, there seems to be an unwritten crime fiction rule that states British policemen of Inspector rank must tick at least two of the following boxes: misanthropic; alcoholic; divorced; obsessed by obscure music; loathes superior officers; superior officers loathe them; have a tortuous family history; carry an iceberg-sized chip on their shoulder. Thankfully for us, Inspector – soon to be Superintendent – Tom Harper fails in all aspects of this grim curriculum vitae. The narrative of this book, like those before it, is grounded in the warm family life Harper enjoys with his political activist wife Annabelle, and their delightful daughter Mary.

maxresdefaultNickson is a master story teller. There are no pretensions, no gloomy psychological subtext, no frills, bows, fancies or furbelows. We are not required to wrestle with moral ambiguities, nor are we presented with any philosophical conundrums. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have an edge. I would imagine that Nickson (right)  is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating. Follow this link to read our review of the previous Tom Harper novel, The Iron Water. Online buying options for On Copper Street are here.

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DARK ASYLUM … Between the covers

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E S Thomson delivers a tale of Gothick horror, which features a young medical apothecary trying to find who killed the senior physician at a gloomy and grotesque hospital for the mentally ill in Victorian London. Jem Flockhart is not what he seems, however. Mr Flockhart is actually a Miss, as he was born female, a surviving twin. For reasons that are not immediately clear, her father switched her with the stillborn brother at birth – a birth which was so traumatic that it killed the mother. Now an adult, helped by her lack of obvious feminine sexual characteristics, she has carved out for herself a persona as a respected medical gentleman and herbalist, a position which, given the prevailing nineteenth century attitude towards women in the medical profession, would have otherwise been unattainable.

Jem, and her companion Will Quartermain – who is unequivocally male – are summoned to view the body of Doctor Rutherford who is found with his ears cut off and stuffed in his mouth, a surgical implement jammed fatally into his brain, and his lips and eyes sewn shut with crudely executed surgical stitches. Amid the carnage, there is no shortage of suspects. The other doctors attached to the asylum are jealous of Rutherford’s eminence, but scathing about his obsession that phrenology – the study of the contours of the skull – is the only true means of understanding mental illness.

DAAs I got further into the book, I was beginning to wonder just what the point was of having Jem Flockhart cross-dressing, as it didn’t seem to have any real bearing on events. Just at the point when I was about to dismiss the idea as a conceit, Thomson delivered a beautifully written scene which made sense of Flockhart’s subterfuge, and added extra poignancy to the relationship between Jem and Will.

We learn that Jem has a disfiguring strawberry birthmark on her face, and Thomson writes with conviction on this issue, as her postscript to the story tells of how she suffered a temporary disfigurement herself, and how she came to be acutely aware of how people looked at her. I can say that this was a gripping read which drew me in to the extent that I finished the book in just a few sessions. The smells, sensations, sounds and social sensitivities of 1850s London are dramatically recreated, and provide much of the novel’s punch. Thomson has an eye for visceral horror and disease that David Cronenberg would approve of, and every time Jem Flockhart takes us into the room of one of the poorer denizens of London, we are inclined to hold our noses and be very careful where we put our feet.

Subtle, the book is not, but it is a dazzling, whirling, swirling riotous melodrama, which leaves little to the imagination. We have, in no particular order, people buried alive, heads being boiled in cauldrons, the shrieking, gibbering and cackling of the insane, a lunatic who keeps cockroaches as pets, the stench and degradation of prison transport ships, club-footed mad-women and the ghastly nineteenth century version of Britain’s Got Talent – the public execution.

Thomson also brings us some larger-than-life characters, none larger than the monstrous Dr Mothersole:

“His face was as smooth as a pebble, his mouth a crimson rosebud between porcelain cheeks. His head had not a single hair upon it and his lashes and brows were entirely absent, giving him a curious appearance, doll-like, and yet half complete….”

Also, very much to her credit, Thomson occasionally has her tongue firmly in her cheek. Why else would the dreadful and bestial Bedlam where most of the action takes place be called Angel Meadow, and what better name for a brothel keeper than Mrs Roseplucker? And what else are we to make of two of the charities patronised by Dr Mothersole, The Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor, and The Limbless Costermongers Benevolent Fund ? I loved every page of this book. It is hugely entertaining and, unless something extraordinary happens, will be in the running for one of my books of the year. It is out now, and published by Constable.

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