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Victorian

CROW COURT . . . Between the covers

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We begin in the peaceful Dorset town of Wimborne in the spring of 1840. Just a few months earlier, in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London, Queen Victoria had marred Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Louisa Chilcott and Samuel Portman are also due to be married, in the equally beautiful Wimborne Minster, but the joy of their day is short-lived.

CC cover015Just days earlier, Samuel had approached his best man, Charles Ellis, with a request for help. Louisa’s young cousin, Henry Cuff, is a member of the Minster choir, but it has been reported that he is desperately unhappy, is absenting himself from school, and refusing to sing in the choir. So how can Charles help? His half brother, Matthew Ellis is the Choirmaster. Could Charles please intercede, and try to find out what is the matter with young Henry?

Charles agrees, but with a heavy heart. He and his half brother are barely on speaking terms. Charles is gentle, urbane and conciliatory, while Matthew – a brute of a man – is bad tempered, censorious, and has an evil reputation. Charles speaks to Matthew, but gets nowhere. A visit to Henry Cuff and his parents is equally fruitless. The boy is clearly terrified, and Mr and Mrs Cuff are unhelpful.

Louisa and Samuel’s wedding goes off as planned, but Henry Cuff – who was due to sing a solo – is nowhere to be found. As the happy couple are basking in the love of well-wishers after the ceremony, a townsman interrupts the festivities with the terrible news that Henry Cuff’s body has been found in the river.

Resentment and anger at Matthew Ellis begins to seethe in the town. Things worsen when it becomes clear that Ellis has not only been cruel and bad-tempered with his boys, but has been abusing them in the vilest manner imaginable. When a  group of men decide to take things into their own hands, and Ellis disappears, the consequences are far reaching.

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The structure of this fascinating novel is worth examining. It is, in effect, fourteen short stories, cleverly written so that they stand alone – indeed, three of the episodes have been published separately – but are linked to a central event, in this case the disappearance of Matthew Ellis. I am struggling for a suitable metaphor; ripples in water spreading out from a central disturbance, maybe? The trouble with that one is that literal ripples weaken the further they spread, and in this case, with the time span being twenty years or more, the ‘ripples’ don’t weaken – they become stronger and more deadly.

I suspect that the author knows and loves his Thomas Hardy. There are tragic outcomes for many of the characters in this novel, not because they are bad people (the only malignant person is Matthew Ellis) but because they have made errors of judgment, or pursued a wrong option. The words that are singing in my ears come from the last page of Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.”

This book operates on so many levels. At its simplest it is a murder mystery, a whodunnit, almost, (and yes, we do learn the identity of the killer in the final pages) but it is also brilliant history reflecting, as it does, on the hardships inflicted on the rural poor by increased mechanisation. I won’t call it a comedy of manners, because there is very little to laugh about, but we are treated to intriguing glimpses of social conventions and the sensitive hierarchies of the mid nineteenth century. Finally, the book is shot through with beautifully imagined descriptions of the Dorset countryside across the seasons. Crow Court is Andy Charman’s first full length novel. It is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher, and is available here.

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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.

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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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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.

SHERLOCK HOLMES . . . Personation, pastiche and parody

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Soon after his first short story appearance in 1891, Sherlock Holmes became a phenomenon.   The first parodies, by JM Barrie and Robert Barr (friends of Arthur Conan Doyle), were published within months, and dozens of light-hearted short parodies and pastiches continued to appear regularly in magazines for the next twenty years or so.

Conan Doyle’s final Holmes story appeared in 1927, and Conan Doyle himself died in 1930.   From about 1940 “new adventures” by Holmesian specialists began to appear, fitfully, in magazines and private printings. More so than earlier pastiches, these tended to keep closely to the fictional world established by Conan Doyle. A selection of these tales was later collected in “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1985), edited by Richard Lancelyn Green.

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Conan Doyle’s copyright
of his works originally lasted for fifty years after the author’s death. These rights were jealously guarded by the Conan Doyle Estate, in the person of Adrian Doyle, the author’s youngest son (above).  So it’s no surprise that he should be involved in the publication of the first authorised Holmes pastiches. These “Exploits of Sherlock Holmes” (1954) comprise twelve cases mentioned but never recorded in the original stories. They were to be written by Doyle and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, but  Carr fell ill after writing (or co-writing) six tales, and the remainder were written by Doyle alone.

Looking at the Exploits, it’s clear that the stories plotted by Carr are extremely imaginative.  Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and he re-used ideas from his earlier writings here. The six stories by Adrian Doyle are closer to the language of the original Holmes stories. However, they are also closer in plot; each of the tales has taken its main story line from one of the Holmes adventures written by Conan Doyle.   That said, it remains an enjoyable collection. Both men realised that the strength of the Holmes legacy lay in the short stories, which were generally superior to the novels.

The next pastiches were the by-product of two Sherlock Holmes films.

Ellery-Queen-Sherlock-Holmes-Versus-Jack-TheThe first, Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, by ‘Ellery Queen’ was published in 1967. This was a novelisation of the screenplay of  ‘A Study in Terror’, co-produced by Sir Nigel Films Limited, a company formed by the Estate to exploit Conan Doyle’s works on screen.   The book added a framing story wherein Ellery Queen reads a manuscript (written by Dr Watson) which sets out the action shown in the film. Queen then applies his own detective skills to ascertain whether Holmes correctly identified the Ripper.  The Ripper section of the book was the work of pulp writer Paul Fairman, and the Ellery Queen part by presumably ‘Ellery Queen’ himself.  An early line of Dr Watson’s narrative reads:

“It was a crisp morning in the fall of the year 1888″:

A warning for American writers attempting this sort of thing.

Next, in 1970, came The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a novelisation (by Michael and Mollie Hardwick) of the screenplay of Billy Wilder’s film of the same name. Again, produced in association with Sir Nigel Films.   Wilder called the screenplay respectful but not reverential. The film was much cut by the studio before its release, and the resulting story is unwieldy and at times near parody. All this is reflected in the book.  Still, some say it captures the Holmesian atmosphere reasonably faithfully.

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The early 1970s
saw a growing interest in Victorian/Edwardian detective fiction, and with Sherlock Holmes in particular. The Estate was aware that its copyrights would expire at the end of 1980, and authorised a number of Holmes pastiches (for which they took a share of the sale proceeds).

The first was Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution (1974).    A contemporary review states:-

Seven_Percent_Solution_first_edition_US“The story is couched as an alternative explanation for the period between Holmes’s  supposed death at the hands of Moriarty (‘The Final Problem’) and his resurrection (‘The Empty House’). The hiatus which began with Holmes drying out extends into a case involving a pasha, a baron and a red headed temptress, during which Holmes instructs Freud in the mechanics of detection and gives some advice about the meaning of dreams.”

This highly successful novel is influential for two reasons.   It’s the first story to mix Sherlock Holmes with  real historical figures – in this case Sigmund Freud in 1890s Vienna – a plot device which has formed the dubious basis of countless tales since;  and it’s the first book  to question the accepted facts of the canon. Nicholas Meyer would develop both these themes in his second Holmes pastiche The West End Horror (1976), set in London’s 1890’s theatreland.

Now the gates had opened. 1977/8 saw the publication of Loren D Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula, Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.    The first is a re-telling of a Dracula legend, with Holmes involved in the investigation; the second a Moriarty Lives! tale with elements of science fiction in the conclusion, and the last a return  to the world of Jack the Ripper. These novels can best be described as adventure stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, rather than Sherlock Holmes stories.   None of them were bestsellers, but they have all been reprinted over the years and have in turn inspired many more variations on these themes.

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A few years earlier
, another promising seam was opened with the publication of The Return of Moriarty by John Gardner; the first of what now seems an never-ending series of books by various hacks featuring subsidiary characters from the canon.

Finally, to top off the decade’s continuing fascination with all things Holmesian, 1979 saw the release of the film Murder by Decree  – a grafting of Sherlock Holmes onto Steven Knight’s then popular Freemasonry/Ripper theories. A novelisation of the screenplay duly followed.

Now seems a convenient place to stop. By December 1980 when the Doyle copyrights initially expired (they were extended to 2000 a few years later) almost all the elements of the present day copyright-free Sherlock Holmes industry were in place. For good or ill, all had been authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate.

From now on, almost all the pastiches were in the form of novels (short stories required too much work, and didn’t sell).

This presented a problem. The original Holmes novels are structurally flawed; the author cannot present a very intelligent central character with a case to solve, and then have that character take two hundred pages to solve it without making him look slow or obtuse.  Sub-plots, or  a back story,  must be introduced to fill the pages.   This is why the genius of Holmes (and Doyle) is best seen in the short stories.

Conan Doyle only once solved this conundrum – with The Hound of the Baskervilles – the pasticheurs never have.

MURDER AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM . . . Between the covers

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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.

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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.

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