Category Archives: Victorian

Loch of the Dead by Oscar de Muriel

Penguin | 2018 (31 May) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Loch of the Dead by Oscar de MurielWhen Inspector Frey receives a visit in the Edinburgh police headquarters by Miss Millie Fletcher, the housekeeper of the wealthy Kolomon family who live in the Highlands, he realises that she brings with her a mystery that he and his colleague Inspector Nine-Nails McGray will not be able to turn down. Millie tells him that Benjamin, the illegitimate child she had to give away years before, is being brought back into the Kolomon family home as heir to his recently deceased father’s estate. It seems that Benjamin’s father was the brother of Mr Kolomon and he and his wife now wish to make peace with the past.

But death threats have been made against Benjamin should he return home and Millie and the Kolomons implore the Inspectors to come to the Kolomons’ manor on the shore of Loch Maree. In return, Millie will reveal a remedy that will cure McGray’s sister of that madness that led to the loss of his finger and much more besides. Irresistible. But it is clear that danger won’t wait for Benjamin to return to the Highlands. It finds him first in Orkney, where his guardian is murdered. It follows him to Loch Maree where mystery hides in the shadows of the manor and in the woods of the loch’s islands. McGray and Frey soon learn that they have walked into a living nightmare.

Loch of the Dead is the fourth novel by Oscar de Muriel to feature Frey and McGray and how good it is to spend time with these curious, ill-matched and really rather odd inspectors. This is one of my favourite Victorian crime series, if not the one I look forward to the most, and Loch of the Dead was such a joy to read from start to finish. I love the mix of Victorian detail, the Scottish setting, the intriguing crimes and the hint of something that ranges from melodramatic to supernatural. There’s only a hint of the latter and it comes with possible explanations but in this Victorian world where news travels at the pace of a telegraph, everything seems likely and anything believable. Especially in the gloriously beautiful yet menacing setting of Loch Maree. The fact that events take place in hot sunshine also adds something of the unexpected!

This is such a great story from the beginning but it’s in the second half that the novel becomes utterly unputdownable as the pace of events explodes and the creepiness levels increase and the horror of the situation facing the Inspectors stands clear before our eyes. This is compelling stuff! And I was gripped and loved how the story (and its characters – unusual to say the least) developed and the mood was maintained.

But no matter how wonderful the story, or how stunning or creepy the setting, the main reasons why this is such a successful series are the quality of Oscar de Muriel’s writing – there are some wonderfully witty moments here – and the two characters of McGray and Frey. How I love these two and here the relationship between the two is stirred up even more by Frey’s very English Uncle Maurice who plays a key role in the novel. He and McGray could be from another world, even without the tartan and the accents. There’s humour in the differences between McGray and Frey but there’s also such warmth. We know that they wouldn’t be without each other really even if each of them treats the other like an alien.

These novels always have a most curious mystery at their heart and The Loch of the Dead is no different. I love the strangeness as well as the warmth and the humour. Long may McGray and Frey continue to annoy the hell out of one another.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows

Advertisements

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Raven Books | 2018 (3 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex ReeveIt is 1880 and Leo Stanhope, assistant to a coroner in London, is in love. It doesn’t matter to him that his love Maria works as a prostitute in Mrs Brafton’s brothel on Half Moon Street. Leo knows that Maria loves him and he has proof. She knows Leo as he really is – a man who was born a girl called Charlotte or Lottie. But Lottie grew up knowing that there was no future for Charlotte the woman. There could only be Leo the man. Very few know Leo’s secret, which is just as well because a woman dressed as a man is committing a criminal offence. But all of Leo’s hopes for the future are shattered when Maria is found dead, murdered, and Leo is a chief suspect. With his heart broken, Leo must discover the truth but in doing so he learns how little he really knew the love of his life.

At the heart of The House on Half Moon Street is its vulnerable and yet immensely courageous transgender hero, Leo Stanhope. He’s so easy to warm to, and fear for, as he lets us into his secrets, we watch him mould his body, suppress his appetite to remain unfeminine, meet with friends who could destroy him with one careless word. The narrative is in the first person and so we know only too well just how much he loves Maria while we also suspect that this relationship is never going to end well. And we worry for him when we watch him risk absolutely everything to chase her killer.

So on one level this is a Victorian murder mystery and it’s a very good one. But on another level it’s an emotional portrait of Leo Stanhope who lived at a time when there must have seemed little hope for someone like him. At times the narrative takes us into very dark places indeed and there is one moment in particular which I found difficult to cope with, that contrasted so sharply with the tone of much of the rest of the novel. And so at times the novel does seem to straddle different worlds. Inevitably, it also reminded me of the much loved Jem series by E.M. Thomson. But there is so much feeling in The House on Half Moon Street that it is impossible not to warm to Leo, who is so beautifully drawn and brought to life, and fear for his situation. But there is more to this novel than Leo’s situation. It also reflects on the situation of London’s poorest women, including its prostitutes.

The portrayal of Victorian London is fantastic. We move around a fair bit of it and I really enjoyed where it it takes us but the best of scenes are reserved for Mrs Brafton’s brothel as well as the evenings Leo spends playing chess with his closest friend. But I particularly liked the moments Leo spends with his landlord and his young daughter. There is such a life to these scenes, although the thought of the landlord practising his dentistry skills is not a comforting one. I loved the lightness and humour of these pages, which do a fine job, I think, of breaking up the darkness.

The House on Half Moon Street is a really enjoyable and at times quite intense portrayal of life in London in the 1880s for poor women and for those who challenged Victorian conceptions of sexuality and gender identity. Leo is an intriguing hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The House on Half Moon Street is Alex Reeve’s debut novel and is, I’m delighted to say, the first of a new series. I’m really pleased that Leo will return.

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

Titan Books | 2018 (9 January) | 335p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna RaybournIt is 1888 and Egyptology has rarely been more popular. But where there’s a mummy there’s usually a curse and the latest person to fall foul of one is John de Morgan who has disappeared off the face of the earth, shortly after helping to discover the tomb of ancient Egyptian princess. Unfortunately, her priceless diadem disappeared at the same time and society isn’t being slow to put two and two together. This is not a mystery that adventuress Veronica Speedwell can ignore because de Morgan used to be the expedition partner of her close colleague, the curiously enigmatic Stoker. There is scandal in Stoker’s past and de Morgan was at its heart. It’s perhaps not surprising that Stoker might be suspected of foul play. And then there are the rumours – the figure of Anubis, that most frightening of Egyptian gods, has been spotted stalking the streets of London.

A Treacherous Curse is the third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series but it’s the first I’ve read. This is a matter shortly to be resolved because I now have the first two books to enjoy – A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking. Not having read the earlier two books didn’t affect my pleasure in A Treacherous Curse in the least but it certainly made me keen to find out what had gone on before between Veronica and Stoker. This is a couple I want to know much more about and I had so much fun reading this book.

A Treacherous Curse is a fantastic mix of giving me what I was expecting – a comforting, fun Victorian Egyptian adventure with a well-heeled heroine who gets herself into all sorts of scrapes while having multiple misunderstandings with men – with the unexpected. Veronica Speedwell challenges all of our preconceptions as much as she does those of the male dominated society of her day. She might have enormously dodgy aristocratic origins (I loved this element of her story so much – I need to much more about this!), but she is fiercely independent, foul-mouthed when the situation calls for it, and nobody knows how on earth to handle her. Except with caution. She is clever and wise and absolutely hysterical. Some of the things she says… Was she really marooned on a raft in the middle of an ocean? How I love Veronica Speedwell.

Stoker is described beautifully and is presented as the archetypal Victorian heartthrob explorer. He’s aristocrat but he has a touch of the exotic about him, enough to draw eyes to him, in a slightly disapproving yet interested manner, in stuffy drawing rooms and parlours.

The mystery is great! I slightly regretted that Veronica and Stoker didn’t actually have to go to Egypt themselves, but the mystery of Egypt is present throughout in the most unlikely of places as an exhibition of the artefacts found within the princess’s tombs gets underway. There is a host of possible suspects and they are brought to life with such colour. I loved all of the scandal – the affairs, the illegitimate offspring, the neglected wives, the unruly children, the intrigue. And I also lapped up the descriptions of Victorian London and its houses and the curious collectors who live within them.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Treacherous Curse. It is such a funny book. The humour doesn’t get in the way of the mystery but it certainly adds a spark to proceedings and helped me to fall deeply for Veronica and Stoker. Just the idea of Stoker scraping out the insides of a stuffed rhinoceros…. I am now a committed fan of this excellent series and will be making a point of seeking out their next adventure while catching up with their previous escapades.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunger by Alma KatsuIt is the summer of 1846 and a wagon train of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, has left it late to cross the Sierra mountains on their way to the promised lands of California. After weeks of crossing hot and dusty prairie, they must make a decision but may well be perilous. They can either take a well-documented and trusted path or they can take the Hastings Cutoff, a route believed to be shorter. Donner makes the decision and it is one that will have devastating consequences for this wagon train of men, women and children – lots of children. The winter of 1846 and 1847 brings hell on earth to the Donner Party.

As the weather closes in and the terrain gets too tough for these heavily laden wagons, tempers fray but that’s the least of their problems. There isn’t enough food to get them through the winter, there are frightening rumours about fierce Indians stalking them from the hills, and then members of the group begin to disappear. Now and again they find what’s left of them. People have different ideas about the best way to survive. It’s clear not all of them will make it. And some of them can hear things from the forest. They know they are being watched.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fine meld of historical fiction and horror. It’s based on a true story that lends itself so well to both (see also my review of October Skies by Alex Scarrow). The Donner Party did indeed get trapped by the weather and mountains and many of them died in circumstances that horrified society – how far did these poor souls go to survive? Alma Katsu delves deeper and she presents a tale as gripping as it is utterly horrifying. This is a novel that made me want to sleep with the lights on.

What makes this novel stand out for me, though, isn’t the horror (although it is delicious), it’s the depiction of the wide range of people that made up this wagon train. Probably close to a hundred in number, we’re made familiar with a fair few of them and for some we’re given tasters of their previous history – we’re given flashbacks of a time when life was normal and this trip to California seemed so exciting and worthwhile. I particularly loved the portraits of the women, most of whom had no say in the decision to travel west and some of them barely knew their husbands. Some women, or girls I should say, married along the way, regardless of their own desires. The wives and daughters are chattels, every bit as much as the cattle they drive across the plains. If any women do make a stand then they are viewed with suspicion as having loose morals, perhaps even witches. Tamsen Donner is presented as one such woman. But there are other girls and women here who also grab our attention – there are so many. I loved reading about them.

It’s the men who have destiny in their hands – or so they believe – and so we also meet some of them. Stanton is arguably our main character, a young man yet to marry due to tragic circumstances. He’s not alone in being haunted by the past. Stanton is torn between fighting to survive by going off alone or staying with the group to protect the women and children. I did like the character of James Reeve especially and some of the finest writing is preserved for his fate. If I have any complaint at all it is perhaps that there are too many characters here to follow. I don’t have the best of memories and so I had to keep flicking through the pages to remember who was who. But this is such a minor point because each of the characters is drawn so well. And then there are the monsters…. You must discover those for yourself.

The Hunger is a beautifully written novel. It conjures up the plains, mountains and forest of this seemingly endless and perilous journey. We experience the heat and then the cold, the effort to remain clean, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the chill. It’s all described so well, and so too are the reactions of the pioneers to their surroundings. They fear it. Everything is an obstacle to where they want to be. And I loved hearing about all of the different reasons for this tremendous journey.

This is, I’m pleased to say as this is a horror novel after all, a frightening story and it’s told so well. It’s rich in historical detail and vivid in its horror. I found The Hunger extremely hard to put down. It’s one of those books where you think that you’ll read just one more chapter but end up reading half the book. The shifting between characters and the movement from the present to the past and back again in flashbacks, as well as the insertion of letters, is done very effectively. This is an accomplished, confident and memorable novel. I read most of it very late at night by low lamplight. I can recommend that.

Other feature
‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger

The Blood by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2018 (5 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Blood was once a ship that sailed the oceans, helping to fight Britain’s wars in exotic and warm seas. But now she is moored up in a darkly poor part of London where she serves as a hospital to the sick and injured amongst London’s sailors and harbour workers. The Blood‘s apothecary is John Aberlady, a friend of Jem Flockhart, the apothecary of St Saviour’s Hospital, all that remains of a monastery recently demolished. Aberlady has vanished but before he disappeared he sent Jem a letter begging for help but the letter had got lost for a week and now it’s too late, the trail has run cold. Jem is given a temporary role standing in for Aberlady on The Blood, and there Jem is perfectly placed to observe the curious behaviour of the misfits who serve as doctors and nurses on this strangest of vessels. Lodging deep in the bowels of the ship, Jem becomes increasingly aware that something most sinister is at work on The Blood.

Jem’s closest friend Will Quartermaine, an architect, has been given a new commission. He must pull down a festering sore in London’s poorest streets, close to The Blood‘s berth, and replace it with a warehouse. This evil-smelling area is Deadman’s Berth and within its pools and buildings, so hidden away from polite view, there are secrets and something much, much worse.

The Blood is the third novel by E.S. Thomson to feature Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermaine and it easily establishes the series as one of the best being written today. I’ve loved all of the books but with no hesitation at all I declare that The Blood is my favourite and it is outstanding. This is no small triumph when you consider that the first two were both marvellous. But now the characters of Jem and Will are firmly established, their unusual relationship cleverly developed, and this assurance brings a confidence to the plot and to all other aspects of the novel.

If you haven’t yet read Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum, then you can certainly read and enjoy The Blood as a standalone novel. Everything that you need to know about Jem is explained quite early on, but I think it’s only through reading all three books in order that you realise what an extraordinary creation and personality Jem actually is. Jem is now one of my favourite characters in historical fiction. I can totally understand Will’s feelings towards Jem and I also feel very warmly towards Will. It’s all so complicated. So difficult. So incredible.

The Blood does such a fine job of presenting just the right mix of Victorian melodrama and historical reality. The novel is set in 1850, with pleasing references to Charles Dickens and others, in a recognisable London although much of the story takes place in London’s most godforsaken hellholes – its opium dens, its slums, its inns, its brothels and, most memorably, its morgues and dissection theatres. In this world, the poor and the desperate count for very little indeed. In fact, they are worth far more dead than alive, their corpses haggled over by doctors and their students. It’s a pitiful place for anyone to end up in, and Jem takes it personally and is driven to find justice for these poor people who found so little of it in life. And then there is The Blood herself – its hidden depths, secret passages, overheated cabins, its miserable wards of drugged patients. It is brilliantly drawn by E.S. Thomson.

There are some absorbing themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women in so-called educated society, the plight of young girls with nowhere to go, the subjugation of women, and the development of medicine. There’s an added touch of the exotic here, because the doctors aboard The Blood have a particular interest in tropical diseases. It’s all fascinating stuff.

The Blood entertains and intrigues on so many levels – for its mystery (which is excellent!), its themes, its vividly described locations, and for all of the little historical details about so many things, including clothes and herbs. E.S Thomson writes so beautifully. There are stunning descriptions of people and places – you can almost smell the stench of squalour and decay, while shuddering at the excesses of Victorian immorality and hypocrisy. And then we have Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain, two young individuals that I have grown to love and fear for enormously. With no doubt at all, this is an early contender for my top historical fiction read of 2018.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (22 February) | 294p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul DavidIt is 1888 and Major George ‘Zulu’ Hart has returned to England a war hero, decorated with the Victoria Cross. He brings with him his wife and their young child. One would think that they would be ready for a well-deserved rest, but George wishes he were on another fighting commission abroad, and he is well aware that he and his wife are far too profligate for his salary. So he has no choice but to accept his new mission, as unusual as it may seem. Hart is asked to keep the Prince of Wales’s son Prince Albert, known to everyone as Eddy, safe for a year. The Prince, a cavalry officer in George’s regiment, a charismatic, handsome and likeabale man, lives on the edge of scandal. He and his friends frequent London’s male brothels and are seen out and about in Whitechapel, one of London’s most poverty-stricken areas. It’s only a matter of time before Eddy’s behaviour brings disgrace on the royal family.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Irish nationalism is on the rise and its threat has reached London. Prince Eddy is a target for Irish assassins. And the streets of London are restless. A killer is slaughtering Whitechapel’s female prostitutes in the worst of ways. He is known as Jack the Ripper and the rumours surrounding his identity are growing out of control. Major George Hart has no choice but to suspect the worst.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders is the third ‘Zulu’ novel by military historian Saul David but this stand alone novel represents a bit of a change for the author. There are no battles to fight here, no recognisable enemy. Instead, what we have is a stand alone Victorian murder mystery featuring a military hero who now has to play detective but must also play a social game. This story also gives George a chance to find out more about the Duke of Cambridge, the man he believes to be his father, and this adds a welcome personal element to the novel’s development.

The relationship between George and the Prince is arguably the most appealing aspect of the novel. There is an etiquette of behaviour demanded by the Prince’s royal position but there is also the matter of army rank – George Hart outranks Prince Eddy and there is a real tension from this that I found fascinating. The novel moves between different worlds – the regulated army, the police investigation into the Ripper murders, the stews of Whitechapel, its brothels and also the pubs where men meet to plot harm. The most vividly depicted are the streets of Whitechapel. The fact that we know what happened to Jack the Ripper’s latest victims, and who they were, adds foreboding.

The investigation into the identity of Jack the Ripper forms the heart of the novel and there are some intriguing suggestions made. I did guess the outcome as presented here very early on and so I’m not sure that it works especially well as a whodunnit but the novel does capture well the squalor of Whitechapel and the constraints of the police investigation.

I found much of the novel rather cold and clinical. I never warmed to George Hart. His family plays very little part in the proceedings and the other relationships in the novel are emotionless. There is a major crime in the book, apart from the Jack the Ripper murders, which is truly horrifying and shocking and yet it’s almost brushed aside.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders takes as its subject one of the most infamous and terrible crimes of the Victorian age and adds to it the rather less well known activity of the Irish Fenians as well as the scandalous behaviour of the Queen’s eldest grandson. Major George Hart is thrown into the midst of it all. Possibly there is too much plot for a relatively short novel to juggle but it certainly deals with a fascinating time and raises some interesting themes about Victorian society, morality, politics and murder.

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War

Incendium