Category Archives: Victorian

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

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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.

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2018 (26 July) | 421p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser CollardThe Rebel Killer picks up exactly where The True Soldier finished, on a battlefield in an America torn apart by civil war. This review assumes that you’ve read The True Soldier and need to know what will happen next to our hero, Jack Lark.

It is 1861 and Jack Lark, fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, has seen his side lose. The battlefield is buried beneath his fallen comrades. Jack and Rose must flee for their lives as the Confederate army consolidates its victory and marches on. But the fates have a habit of turning on Jack Lark and now is no different. Jack encounters Major Lyle and from that moment on Jack has a new enemy and he has a new passion in his life – it is called vengeance and it drives him on with a rage he has not known before. In order to pursue his goal, Jack must once again swap sides and identities. He will fight with the Confederates. But poor luck pursues him. He must depend on others for his survival as his wounds, both physical and mental, increase. His destiny leads him on to one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, the battle of Shiloh.

The Rebel Killer is the seventh novel in a series that has taken us to many of the most significant battle arenas of the mid 19th century – in the Crimea, India, the East, Italy and now to America. Jack Lark is our hero, a man who sheds identities like a coat (military issue) and who can never forget his roots in a gin palace in one of London’s poverty-stricken, crime-wracked rookeries. His drive to survive is extraordinary and he uses war to do it. He has a talent for soldiering that at times, particularly as he gets older, frightens him. Is he a devil?

In this latest adventure, which takes us into the heart of America’s bloody conflict, we see Jack Lark at his most despondent and the result is a book that is the darkest and most violent of the series. There is ice in his veins. He wants to inflict death. He barely cares if he survives. And he kills ruthlessly. Jack is clearly traumatised and in danger of being overcome by wounds and sickness. He is saved more than once, relying on the kindness of others for his life, but he can barely acknowledge their care. It is as if Jack Lark has to be rebuilt. And, as with many of the Jack Lark books, a woman will be needed to help him. Whether he will appreciate her or not, is another matter.

The violence and darkness of The Rebel Killer is a reason why, although I enjoyed it very much, it isn’t my favourite of the series. It is, though, every bit as well written and researched as the others and is such a fast and exhilarating read. It is most certainly grim as Jack continues to follow his bloody path to vengeance. I really felt for him, but I felt for Martha more. As the novel progresses, though, Jack tries to shake off the devil inside him and so there is a sense that he is healing but the journey that he has undergone was so bleak. The violence was a little too much for me at times, I must admit, but then I am very squeamish.

Having said that, in The Rebel Killer, yet again, Paul Fraser Collard shows what a fine writer of military historical fiction he is. The historical detail is very impressive, showing us the full horror of the American Civil War. The weaponry and battle formations are fascinating. We’re also shown something of how complicated it all was – with friend fighting friend, brother fighting brother – and that there was more to it than slavery or union. There is a chaos. The uniforms are similar. People accidentally kill their own side. The fact that Jack can swap sides as an outsider and then kill people he once fought alongside is a shocking indicator of how terrible civil war is and how disturbed Jack is. War is also the perfect situation in which to hide secrets or past lives, as is shown by both Jack and Martha.

There are sections that I really loved, particularly the time that Jack spends recovering in Martha’s house with her father. And also the time when he is cared for by a slave. Jack is vulnerable for much of the book and it’s in those times that we see how war affects those who have such small voices in history – the woman and the slave. I’ve always enjoyed the female characters in this series – there are more of them and in more significant roles than I’m used to in military historical fiction – and Martha is one of my favourites.

The Rebel Killer is one of those adventure novels you don’t want to put down. It is so well written, the prose flows along and it is extremely exciting! I read half of it in one sitting late into the night and then read the other half the next day, devouring it in big satisfying gulps! I’m hoping that in his next adventure, Jack Lark can be a little kinder to himself (and to those around him) and I’m intrigued to know what his next step will be.

Other reviews and features
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
The True Soldier
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Riverrun | 2018 (6 September) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Water by Elizabeth LowryIt is 1855 and Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, is putting to paper his thoughts concerning ‘the dark water, or submerged aspect of the human mind’, reflecting on those pivotal moments in his life and career when he served as assistant surgeon aboard the Orbis in 1833. In that brutal environment, so far from home and safety, Carver met William Borden, a man loved by everyone and known to all as ‘The Hero of the Providence‘.

The Providence was an unhappy ship, its crew torn apart by mutiny. Borden put a small number, including the captain, aboard a dinghy and he sailed them to land after a terrible journey of several months. This experience has left its mark. Back in Boston some time after his experiences aboard the Orbis, Dr Carver receives a new patient in his asylum – William Borden. Madness has pursued him but Carver is determined to cure him. And the only way he can do that is to make them both understand what happened on the Providence, to go back to the dark water that continues to haunt both Borden and Carver.

Dark Water is a novel I’ll remember for a long time. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this novel swept me off my feet. It is beautifully elegiac, telling a Gothic story that also feels so grounded in 19th-century Boston, before the events of the American Civil War. The sea and the land – namely Boston, Charlestown and the island of Nantucket – play equal parts and they’re both evocatively depicted, although it’s at sea, the sea that laps up against the coast of Massachusetts and is always inescapable, where the true mystery lies.

Above all else this is the story of Hiram Carver, told in his own words. Carver hates the sea, it hates him. He feels most at home in his office in the asylum for the insane observing patients who are most surely at sea, kept apart from their families and loved ones, from reality. These are Carver’s memoirs and in them we find the Hero, the enigmatic William Borden, Carver’s addiction, but there are others equally memorable – Carver’s sister Caro, Borden’s fiancee Ruth, Carver’s boss and mentor at the hospital, Dr Mansfield, and so many others and they all leave their mark, perhaps more than anywhere on the island of Nantucket.

Watching Hiram Carver’s personality change so severely for the worse through the years is compelling and here is the quiet, moody drama of Dark Water. What happened to Barden is a great mystery to Carver but for us it holds fewer surprises. Instead, I was riveted by this most elegant tale of lost human lives, that fragile line between sanity and madness, and the hopelessness of love. It is melancholic and cruel in places but there’s such a beauty to it. Images  and themes are pursued through the novel, especially the act of eating and starving – it’s cleverly done. I also really enjoyed the extracts from the court case that prosecuted the mutineers. It’s such a riveting story.

Dark Water is a relatively lengthy novel and every page of it is a pleasure. It’s extremely hard to put down. Elizabeth Lowry is such a fine writer, she pulls you into the book and there’s no chance of release until the end. There is so much to it. A tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Irresistible.

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

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.