Category Archives: Victorian

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (14 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire NorthIn 1884, English medical doctor William Abbey was in Natal in South Africa and stood by while a young boy was beaten and burnt to death by a mob in front of his eyes. He stood by and did nothing. His mother, who held her murdered child Langa in her arms as he died, looked into Abbey’s eyes and cursed him. Forever now, William Abbey will be pursued by the shadow of Langa. Wherever he flees, Langa will always follow him and will find him. Every time he catches Abbey, a person dearly loved by the doctor will die. The first person who dies is Abbey’s dear sister. Abbey must now frantically keep one step ahead of his relentless, terrible shadow to keep alive everyone he loves, while never daring to love again. He embarks on an endless journey that takes him across Africa and back to Europe and beyond, even to India, culminating in the trenches of France in 1917, where the novel begins. It’s as he travels that Abbey discovers another side to the curse. He can see the secrets in the heart of people around him and when Langa gets very close he is unable from shouting them out. It’s terrifying.

Claire North is one of my very favourite writers and has been ever since I read the first novel published under this name back in 2014, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a tremendous novel. One of the top reads I’ve had in 2019 is The Gameshouse, one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and so it was a joy to discover that we were to have another novel by Claire North this year. William Abbey, like all of these books, has the most fantastic premise, which really appealed to my love of speculative fiction. It’s a mesmerising idea. But, again as with the other books, this premise is explored to throw light on something else, something dark, something significant, and in William Abbey that something else is colonialism

What Abbey witnesses in South Africa, and also in India, is appalling and he cannot escape it because the truth is pursuing him – across oceans, mountains and deserts. We witness cruelty and prejudice, great injustice and terrible anger and sadness. Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency working across the British Empire who need men such as Abbey to discover the truth about what their targets are thinking. This is dangerous as it means he has to allow Langa to get very close indeed. It’s no way to live if Abbey can be said to be living any kind of life at all.

Abbey himself is an intriguing character. He’s a man caught in his time who sees it at its worst which means he’s hard to warm to, or like, even while we try to understand him. He narrates the novel, we experience his world through his eyes, we feel the terror and the fear, as well as the guilt. One of the most fascinating elements of the book is when Abbey meets other men and women like him and learns some of the reasons behind their curses. This can be troubling but also heartbreaking as Abbey learns why people cannot forget the past, why it must continue to live through them, through their curse. So many lessons to learn, so much to atone for.

This is a disturbing tale and there is a lot of empire to cover. One drawback of this for me is that I found there was an element of repetition, perhaps inevitably due to the structure and endless chase of the novel. This also led to a bit of a lag in the middle. Nevertheless, while William Abbey isn’t my favourite Claire North book, it is still an excellent and significant novel with some extremely powerful sections of prose. Claire North is a fine writer who impresses time after time. What an extraordinary imagination she has and how gifted she is at telling us her stories. I look forward to reading every single one of them.

For another review of William Abbey, please do take a look at David’s excellent review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
84K
The Gameshouse

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Canongate | 2019 (29 August) | 416p | Review copy | Read the book

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

It is 1850 and Edinburgh is a leading city in the world of medical science but all is not well in the city. Many patients are falling suddenly ill, dying without obvious cause, while Dr James Simpson’s career is being threatened by rumour and scandal. Simpson’s protégé Will Raven has now returned from Berlin where his medical training has been completed. Now a qualified doctor he is ready to work alongside Simpson and to work with the former housemaid Sarah Fisher to clear the name of the man who has given them both so much. But Raven has left the continent under a cloud and it hangs over him while his relationship with Sarah will now be further tested. But Raven and Sarah are beginning to realise that a ruthless killer is loose in the city and it’s up to them to end it before more lives are taken.

The Art of Dying is the second novel by Ambrose Parry to feature Raven and Sarah. I’m sorry to say that I’ve yet to read the first novel The Way of All Flesh. This didn’t affect my enjoyment in The Art of Dying at all but, although its mystery is self-contained, it did mean that I didn’t know the history between Raven and Sarah and I think that if you do know these two already, then you will be delighted to encounter them again. They are wonderful characters. There’s a sense that Will Raven has changed. Perhaps he’s grown up a little but he still fights a battle within himself. He is a man of medicine, a doctor works to save lives, but he’s taken them, too.

Sarah is harder to know and she has more to endure. She is, for me, the most fascinating character in the novel. Through Sarah we explore the life of a Victorian woman, a Victorian wife who wants nothing more than to be a doctor herself, not a nurse but a physician. She is tested in the cruellest of ways while finding support, unexpectedly, from Will Raven.

I loved the historical medical insight that can be found throughout the novel. These were exciting days as such things as chloroform were becoming more widely used, pioneered by James Simpson in Edinburgh. Simpson and Raven are obstetricians, which means we see the happiness and grief of female health, pregnancy and childbirth in Victorian Britain. It forms such an effective and at times quite emotional backdrop to this tale of murder which threatens the foundations of medical science at this most significant point in its development.

The Art of Dying is an excellent Victorian crime novel, which mixes in comment on the position of women in 19th-century society (and medicine) with a a great deal of gripping plot. I may have missed the first novel in this series but I cannot wait to read the third!

The Darker Arts by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2019 (8 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Darker Arts by Oscar de MurielIt is 1889 and Madame Katerina is about to hold a séance for three of Edinburgh’s most well-known and well-to-do families. They are all related to Grannie Alice, a formidable matriarch who has recently died, taking her secrets with her to the grave. Having tried everything else, these six people feel they have no alternative but to call Grannie Alice from the ‘other side’ so that she can communicate with them. But the next morning, when the room is opened, all six are found dead in their seats, only Katerina is alive. Katerina is the obvious suspect, not least because these are supposedly enlightened days in which gypsies have no place, but her friend Inspector ‘Nine Nails’ McGray does not believe she’s guilty. Somehow, somebody, something killed these people, something that has terrified Madame Katerina and for which she must face trial and punishment. McGray summons his colleague Inspector Ian Frey from England where he is dealing with the death of his uncle. Together they must try and solve an unsolvable puzzle, while journeying deep into the dark, frightening world of Madame Katerina and late Victorian mysticism and superstition.

The Darker Arts is the fifth novel by Oscar de Muriel to feature his irresistible and troublesome detectives, one English, one Scottish, one polite, one a whole lot less polite. McGray and Frey form an unlikely alliance, based in the cellar of Edinburgh’s police station where they tackle inexplicable crimes. McGray’s past is a dark place (hence the ‘nine nails’ and not ‘ten’) and he is determined to understand it. He must know what happened during this séance . Frey, on the other hand, feels far closer to the dead than he’d wish.

This is a wonderful ‘closed room’ tale of murder, with a premise that is immediately appealing, so much so that I began it the day it arrived. I’ve loved all of these books. I love Oscar de Muriel’s writing, which has such a sparkle to it even when he takes us into such dark and dangerous places and his detectives are both remarkable and completely convincing. The case they must solve now is worthy of them and I do believe that The Darker Arts is my favourite of the series so far.

We are presented with a superb cast of characters! These interconnected families are at war and it’s a pleasure getting to know the kin of those who died. It’s an outrageous crime, children have been left orphaned while mothers have lost their children. The impact on their lives is devastating but all the time we are aware that these are no straightforward lives. There is much to learn from them and they fascinate every bit as much as the extraordinary, fabulous McGray and Frey.

The setting of late Victorian Edinburgh is impeccably drawn. It’s also extremely atmospheric, moody and dark, just as you’d hope for from the title, premise and stunning cover. It’s also witty and at times melodramatic. The séance is essentially an act of theatre, Madame Katerina is hard to know, essentially an actor, but the reality is that a hangman’s noose now stalks her and so there is tragedy and pathos to be found as well as melodrama, superstition and ghostly tales.

This series goes from strength to strength. It’s one of the very best Victorian crime series there is – it is, I think, a worthy contender to take the title – and The Darker Arts is a spooky pleasure from start to finish. I hope we’ll be spending much more time with ‘Nine Nails’ and ‘Percy’.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Pan | 2019 (30 May) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Summer Queen by Margaret PembertonIt is August 1879 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria has gathered together all of her family for the annual commemoration of the birthday of her late beloved husband Prince Albert. There’s no denying it’s a chore to most but, while the Queen plots alliances and marriages for her grandchildren and their little cousins, those children run free and play in the grounds of the House. And it is there that three of those children make their own alliance: May of Teck, a cousin from a house tainted by scandal and disgrace; Alicky, the daughter of Alice, Victoria’s second daughter who only recently passed away and is so greatly missed; Willy, Victoria’s first grandchild and arguably her favourite. He is much older than May and Alicky but he knows what to say to Alicky who is grieving for her mother and to May who feels that she is an outsider. Willy, too, feels like an outsider due to the withered arm that makes his own mother ashamed of him. Together they form a bond. They take an oath to become Kindred Spirits – should their alliance be broken, calamity will follow.

These three grow up to become Queen Mary of England, Empress of India; Empress Alix of Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Germany. After many years, these Kindred Spirits will break their oath. War and revolution will tear Europe and Russia apart. Not all of them will survive.

For forty years, The Summer Queen follows the lives and changing fortunes of Queen Victoria’s family as they marry amongst themselves, falling hopelessly in love or, on occasion, into deep enmity. Their marriages and relationships form a web that spreads out across all of Europe and Russia, becoming increasingly entangled as the ‘Royal Mob’, as Victoria called them, multiplies. All of them have pet names, so rarely called by the grand names that they were born with – and, after all, there can be only one Victoria. Their blood relationships are difficult even for them to remember and yet they are impossibly important. Little matters more than royal blood, especially when it flows from Queen Victoria. And yet it carries with it a disease – haemophilia or the bleeding disease – and this takes the life of several and destroys the lives of more.

But while this family carries on its elaborate games, almost believing they’re a normal extended family, they can forget the cost, not just to themselves – heartbreak is the frequent result of forbidden alliances – but to their countries. These are the most powerful people of their time and yet they almost reduce themselves by their use of diminutive names, their parties and their gossip. But by 1914 there isn’t a frantic telegram between cousins that can prevent war or what will happen in Russia.

All of this is brought to life in Margaret Pemberton’s glorious royal saga. And what a wonderful job this author does with what is an extremely complicated tale covering forty years. There are so many people, not of whom use their real names, and it is a challenge at times to remember who is who. There’s a list at the beginning (thank heavens) and there are reminders throughout of relationships, which become ever more complex. But, as the novel progresses, we grow to care very deeply about some of these people, particularly as hindsight warns us what is in store for them. Even Willy is treated with some sympathy. But most of our attention is on May and Alicky. Alicky’s story is relatively well known but there is so much about May that isn’t known and it’s fascinating learning there was far more to her than the photos of a rigidly respectable and formal Queen Mary suggest. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

When all’s said and done, this is a family, albeit a very privileged one. We see their loves and hopes, their jealousies and frustrations, and we feel their losses. This is, particularly in the first half, an often light and frivolous tale as these young people grow up, but there are moments of real sadness and I sobbed my heart out more than once.

I loved the mix of intimate family drama and grand international relations. The two don’t always go together and the conflict in these lives is vividly portrayed. This is a novel that can be enjoyed on several levels and, the more I read, the more I knew I could not put this book down.

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

Raven Books | 2019 (2 May) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Anarchists' Club by Alex ReeveIt was in March 1881 that Dora Hannigan with her two children visited the pharmacy above which Leo Stanhope lodged. Leo hadn’t been able to help her when she asked for credit to buy a medicinal powder. Just a few days later Dora is found dead in the courtyard of the so-called Anarchists’ Club, an establishment where the disaffected and the angry meet to plot vengeance on the establishment. The police find a note with Leo’s address in her purse. Perhaps her visit to the Pharmacy hadn’t been by chance after all. As far as the police are concerned, the connection makes Leo a suspect and that is something that Leo must avoid at all costs. Nothing must be allowed to endanger Leo’s secret. He must keep it safe at every cost. But when a member of the Anarchists’ Club remembers Leo from their youth and threatens to reveal his secret unless he provides an alibi for him, Leo is put in an impossible and dangerous situation.

Then there’s the matter of the two motherless children. Leo’s hunt for them is short. The boy and girl turn up on his doorstep and Leo now learns that it’s not just his own life at risk. But how far will Leo go to protect them as he hunts for their mother’s killer?

The Anarchists’ Club is the second Leo Stanhope novel in a series that began with The House on Half Moon Street. That was such a strong debut from Alex Reeve, clearly a very talented and insightful author, and yet I think that The Anarchists’ Club is even better. There are brief mentions of the previous novel (Leo is still recovering emotionally from past events) but both books stand alone very well indeed.

Leo Stanhope is an incredible main character. I said when I reviewed the earlier novel that he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and nothing has changed. If Leo’s secret (revealed to the new reader early on in the book) were discovered, he would be destroyed. He hides his emotions but they’re there. He expresses his anxiety by painfully pinching himself. He tries to reveal nothing. It isn’t easy at all when, in this novel, his family try to make contact. And also there’s the matter of his relationship with Dora Hannigan’s two children. It’s in these scenes that this novel truly shows its power. Alex Reeve’s portrayal of Leo and of the children is insightful, emotional and also simply gorgeous. They feel like real people, albeit people clearly belonging to that other age of late Victorian England.

I loved the portrayal of London during the 1880s. Leo is a fine tourguide as he takes us around his city, including (especially enjoyably) the Zoo – I really appreciated the map at the beginning of the book. We meet both poor and rich, the vulnerable and the exploiters. The setting of the Anarchists’ Club is intriguing, although the politics remain very much secondary to the mystery.

And it’s such a good mystery. Alex Reeve maintains the tension and pace as Leo becomes consumed by the need to learn the truth and do right by these children. The case raises all sorts of questions about late Victorian society, including the ways in which it sought entertainment. There are some great scenes here. But the book also throws light on such themes as Victorian attitudes towards women and those without a voice. You sense that this is a time ripe for anarchy indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Anarchists’ Club, reading it in just one day. It’s beautifully written and steeped in its time and place. It shines in particular though for its sensitive and moving portrayal of the troubled Leo Stanhope. This novel confirms the series’ place as one of the finest historical crime series about, with one of the most distinctive and memorable historical detectives of them all. I look forward to more!

Other review
The House on Half Moon Street

Surgeons’ Hall by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2019 (21 March) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

Surgeon's Hall by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and the Great Exhibition is underway in London. There has rarely been such interest in science and innovation. Apothecary Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain are there to look at the wax anatomical models made by the famous and reclusive Dr Silas Strangeway. But there is a gruesome curiosity among the exhibits – a perfectly dissected hand of flesh and blood. There are medical students in the exhibition and Jem suspects a prank so he takes the hand along to Corvus Hall. This private anatomy school, next to Jem’s own apothecary, is run by Dr Crowe, who recently relocated from Edinburgh, transforming this once grand house into a macabre mix of mortuary, school and museum.

Corvus Hall is not a place to be after dark and not just because of the recently dead corpses or the dissected remains pickled in jars. Dr Crowe’s daughters, the eldest Lilith and twins Sorrow and Silence (one blind and one deaf), move around the ‘dead house’ by night and the students are frightened of them. And then there is a death in the Hall and it’s clear to Jem that this is a place of deadly secrets.

Surgeons’ Hall is the fourth novel in E.S. Thomson’s fantastic series featuring one of the most unusual and fascinating main characters in Victorian crime fiction, Jem Lockhart. Jem lives a life based on a lie. A few people detect the secret, that Jem is a woman living as a man, but generally Jem succeeds, helped by the large birthmark that covers her face, ensuring that most people don’t take a second look. It’s a lonely life but Jem has Will Quartermain for company. This young architect is Jem’s family, along with the servants in their home. But when Will gets a job as an illustrator in Corvus Hall, Jem realises how easy it would be to lose him. All of this adds such depth and feeling to the novels, as well as a sadness. Jem is the perfect observer, she is our narrator, and she watches the women around her who are so constrained and limited by the rules laid down by fathers, husbands, brothers as well as by Victorian society in general. Medicine, especially, is a man’s world.

Medical training in the mid 19th century is the stuff of nightmares and it feels as if every floor, every room of Corvus Hall reeks of death, blood and gore. E.S. Thomson lays this all before us with such vivid and rich prose. She writes beautifully, capturing the atmosphere perfectly. This is a gruesome and macabre place. To catch a killer, Jem and Will must creep around its rooms by night. The house itself is decaying. You can almost smell its stench and feel the horrible wet squishy disgusting mess of a sample trodden underfoot.

E.S. Thomson has such a good time bringing the male world of anatomy, medical training and dissection to life but she has plenty of time for the women of the novel, not all of whom are still alive. Many women are victims, some are silenced in more ways than one, while others have to make a living in the best way that they can and we see all types here. Some are gloriously hideous, pocked with disease, while others are subdued and others still are prey. These are fantastic portraits and some are very moving to read. Jem and Lileth, though, have no doubt that women should have a bigger role in society. There are signs here that medicine is making breakthroughs – anaesthetic is now in use – but some attitudes remain in the dark ages.

But it’s not just the women who come to life in Surgeons’ Hall. There are fantastic descriptions of the men who lurk in the corners of Corvus Hall as well as the raucous students who eat pie and drink ale in the nearby inns. It’s a wonderful depiction of Victorian society as witnessed by these young men, with no vocation, whose eyes are on the money of a career in medicine.

Another role in Surgeons’ Hall worthy of a mention is of course the human body and there are plenty of them here. These people are now worth nothing more than the value of their bones and organs as they’re taken apart bit by bit. What a way to end up. It’s horrifying and they haunt this novel.

The mystery is excellent and it is revealed in such a brilliant way. It’s a compulsive read. I was completely immersed in it. This is such fine writing, steeped in historical and scientific detail. This series is now well established as one of the very best in historical fiction being written today and Surgeons’ Hall is superb and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Doublesday | 2019 (17 January) | 420p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Once Upon A River by Diane SetterfieldIt is the longest night of the year and the men of Radcot, Oxfordshire, gather in The Swan, an ancient inn on the banks of the Thames, keeping to its winter room for warmth. There are no women among the regulars although each knows that the landlady, Margot, rules queen of this inn. The appeal of The Swan is that it is a place for telling stories. The landlord, Joe, a man who ails from damp in his lungs, is a master of storytelling and people gather to hear him and to tell their own. On this midwinter’s night they will each gain a new story, better than any. An injured stranger bursts through the door and collapses. In his arms is the body of a young girl, four-years-old at most. Rita Sunday, the local healer, is fetched but it is clear to everyone that the child is dead. But then, hours later, she wakes up.

The community of Radcot knows all about lost children. The Vaughans lost their daughter two years before, stolen by thieves. Little Amelia’s mother, Helena, a young woman who feels more at home on the river than she does on land, is bereft and her husband despairs. Might this child be Amelia? Robert Armstrong has cause to think that she might instead be the granddaughter he’s never met, a little girl feared drowned. And then there’s Lily White, a woman who is lost herself, who lives in little more than a hovel, who believes that the child can be none other than her sister, who she last saw so long ago. All of these people are as linked by their sorrow as they are by the river as it flows through their lives during the months between midwinter and midsummer and the winter once more. A time that will change them all.

Once Upon a River is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition.

Diane Setterfield paints such exquisite portraits of the men and women who live in Radcot and its environs. We occasionally might meet dangerous predators but the majority of the people we come across are drawn with such tenderness and care. It’s impossible not to become involved in their stories. For me, the standout character, among many who stand out, is Robert Armstrong, a gentle giant if ever there was one, whose empathy for his fellow human beings, especially children, as well as for the creatures that he farms or comes across during his day is bewitching. He has something in his pocket for them all but he also gives them all his time and attention. His adoration for his pigs is something to behold. They are his friends. One, alas, like the little girl carried out of the river, is lost. I also loved the theme of photography that weaves through the novel – this is the dawn of a new age, the age of Darwin and science, which is now trickling down to those who live superstitious and relatively impoverished lives along the Thames.

We get to know these people intimately as they live their lives, suffer their griefs, enjoy their rare joys, and sometimes die, meeting the ferryman that they all believe haunts these waters. Diane Setterfield understands their motivations entirely and each of the stories we encounter here is perfectly formed. There is, though, such a sadness to parts of the novel which did at times make for painful reading but I was so hypnotised by it I could not put it down, staying up late into the night to read it. There is lightness to counteract the darkness. There is hope and there is also gentle humour as well as great kindness. A fairy tale of sorts, there are hints of something otherworldly just out of reach.

Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish. It is also set in my part of the world and it made me feel closer to it, made me want to explore more of it. The beautiful cover hints at wonders within and they are there to discover and enjoy. I have no doubt that this marvellous book will be among my favourites of the year.