In the mid 1850s, the churches and parlour rooms of middle and upper class Great Britain were reeling under the onslaught of science. While the invention of medicines, typewriters, sewing machines, the camera and the bicycle were all well and good, how could God’s finest creation, Man (shortly followed by Woman and the Foreigner), be the relatives of apes and beasts? How could the uncovering of monsters turned to buried rock fit with the chronology of God’s Earth? Much of the Establishment treated evolutionists as little more than practitioners of sedition but there were a few members of the upper classes who promoted and funded this new science with enthusiasm. It is one such enthusiast – Lady Bessingham – who is found murdered in her bedroom at the beginning of D.E. Meredith’s excellent Victorian mystery, Devoured.
Devoured is the first in a series to feature Professor Hatton and Monsieur Roumande, proponents of another new science: forensics. Although this is a time when autopsies were more widely regarded as an unnatural, sinister practice or as entertainment for the salacious and and moneyed rather than as having a use, here Hatton and Roumande are put to work with one of Scotland Yard’s most progressive and famous detectives, Inspector Adams. Together they uncover a trail of missing letters, written on an expedition in Borneo by young Benjamin Broderig to Lady Bessingham, his glamorous patron. Now back in London, Broderig insists that these letters must be found at all costs before they cause untold havoc to society and religion. But they are not alone in their quest – there are others who search for the letters and it’s not long before the trail is not just of letters but also of corpses.
D.E. Meredith has created a thrillingly complex and rewarding Victorian mystery. Encompassing scientific and evolutionary expeditions in Borneo, the sinister fens of eastern England, the glamorous mansions of dukes and the muck and gloom of London’s poorest streets, it covers great distances. We also meet a cast of characters that is drawn from across the layers of Victorian society – layers clearly defined and separate by day and darkly blurred by night. At one level, Devoured is a satisfying intellectual exercise, a forensic investigation into the series of increasingly elaborate murders. However, this clinical puzzle changes as the novel progresses, merging with a brutal and horrifying portrait of London’s vulnerable and poor. The murders are gory and D.E. Meredith does not shy away from the squeamish detail. We see the victims laid out just as Hatton, Roumande and Adams do and we also sift through the evidence with them, watching alongside Benjamin Broderig.
The novel switches narratives throughout. At times we follow Hatton’s investigation, at other times we are with Ashby, the poor lackey and scribe of the powerful Duke of Monreith, or Madame Martineau, dressmaker for rich women by day and madame for rich men by night. Interspersed throughout are the letters themselves which tell their own story. Despite the many threads and the occasional dropped stitch everything weaves together to produce a most satisfying result, the pace building from chapter to chapter as the urgency to uncover the truth builds.
Devoured puts its Victorian setting to good use and examines the age of Darwinism with an intriguing perspective. Atmospheric and riveting, gory and polished, and always well-written, Devoured is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller and mystery, set at a time when forensics were in their infancy and science was undoing beliefs.