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Victorian London

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . People of Abandoned Character

There is no single real-life criminal event in history which has captured the imagination of readers, writers, historians and criminologists like the gory saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The word ‘enthusiast’ seems inappropriate to describe someone drawn to the butchering of five women in that dreadful autumn of 1888. How can someone be ‘enthusiastic’ about such carnage? Ripperologist doesn’t work, either, as it seems to conjure up images of a harmless hobby like stamp collecting or fossil hunting.

POAC001There have been countless non-fiction books written on the subject, some providing solutions, but none conclusive. Several fictional detectives have gone head-to-head with The Ripper, and if you click this link, you can read a piece I wrote about the genre. Most recently, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five sought to transform the murdered women from mere corpses to real people.

Now, first-time author Clare Whitfield enters the lists with People Of Abandoned Characters, which centres on a  woman who begins to suspect that her new husband, a doctor, may be involved with the unfolding horror of the Whitechapel murders. Do his absences really coincide with the grisly discoveries of the murdered women, or is she putting two and two together and making five?

The advanced publicity says that People Of Abandoned Character:

“… explores the smoke and mirrors of perceived social mobility, the role of wealthy society and the responsibility to the poor (or not as it may be the case), toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse, gender equality and freedom to pursue personal ambition.”

The printed book looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, and I hope the story lives up to the advanced publicity. It is published by Head Of Zeus and will be out on 1st October. Watch this space for the detailed review.

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WATCHERS OF THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

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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.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Dark Asylum

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This new book reminds me that gender choice is very much a hot topic these days on and off social media, but in ‘the good old days’ people weren’t blessed with Facebook’s bewildering 71 gender options, which seem to have expanded rather after the fashion of satellite TV channels, minus the remote control, obviously. Gender flipping was usually confined to the lyrics of folk songs where young women pretended to be either cabin boys or army drummers so that they could stay close to their chosen young man as he sailed – or marched – off to do battle with Johnny Foreigner.

da-coverThe main character of ES Thomson’s Dark Asylum – the second in a series of Victorian crime novels – is Jem Flockhart. Jem is not who he seems to be. In fact, he isn’t ‘he’ at all. Jem is actually a young lady who is forced to transform herself into a man in order to be accepted in the medical profession. She first made an appearance in Beloved Poison (2016) and now she returns to investigate the murder of the principal physician at an insane asylum. Among all the usual tropes of Victorian London, including grim slum ‘rookeries’, brothels, violent convicts and brothels that cater for every depravity, Jem and her partner in solving crime, Will Quartermain search for the person who killed Dr Rutherford – after cutting off his ears and sewing his eyes and lips tight shut.

As I hope you can see from the images, Dark Asylum is handsomely printed, and if the novel is as gripping as it is well presented and designed, then it should be an excellent read. Look out for an in depth review on Fully Booked in the near future. Published by Constable/Little, Brown, it is out on 2nd March.

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