Tag Archives: 19th century

Nightshade by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2021 (15 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightshade by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and apothecary Jem Flockhart, with the help of close friend Will Quartermaine, decides to restore her physic garden. The project is intended as a distraction, a relaxation, for Will who is recuperating after serious illness. The garden was originally designed by Jem’s late mother, Catherine Underhill, a woman who was every bit as fascinated by poisons and medicinal plants as Jem. But Jem and Will’s digging disturbs the past when they uncover the remains of a body buried years before, clearly murdered, under a bush of deadly nightshade. Jem feels compelled to investigate, little knowing that these actions will ignite a new series of murders with each victim found with deadly nightshade berries in their mouths and each connected to the garden. Jem finds herself on a painfully personal journey as she descends into a world of poisons, exotic plants, memories, murder and madness.

It’s hard to believe that Nightshade is the fifth Jem Flockhart novel. I’ve read and loved these books from the beginning and this one is, I think, my favourite. You can read it without having read the others but I think in many ways it represents the fulfilment of the past. Jem’s character – a girl brought up as a boy and now living and working as a man – is fully evolved, we’ve witnessed the events that have shadowed her recent years, the murders of friends and colleagues, the establishment of her role as apothecary, part of a medical community, and an investigator of murder – it’s now time to learn more about her mysterious mother who died when Jem was an infant. Jem doesn’t like people getting too close to her past and to herself. Her gender is her biggest secret. But, in this case, there is nowhere to hide.

The captivating story mixes with the past as we read extracts from the journal kept by Catherine Underhill as she undertook a botanical expedition to India alongside some extraordinary women, completely out of step with society’s expectations for their gender. Once they are away from England, they leave that corseted world behind and enter another place, which is exotic, intoxicating. This is brilliantly evoked by E.S. Thomson and it complements perfectly Jem’s London, which is also heady with poisons, poverty, dirt, depravity, a place in which people can drive themselves mad. There are some incredible scenes where Jem and Will encounter the insane, secrets locked away within. The cast of characters in this novel are fabulous – each is fascinating and most are disturbing, even frightening.

Victorian London is vividly portrayed. The novel (and series) is full of historical medical and botanical knowledge. The book is enriched by its detail. At the heart of all of this, though, is Jem, who seems lost, vulnerable and at risk. There is only so much protection Will can provide. I urge you to read this superb series, with its ingenious tales of murder and murderers, and get to know Jem, one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Surgeons’ Hall

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.

Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

HQ | 2018 (12 July) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wrecker by Noel O'ReillyPorthmorvoren is a small village tucked away into the coast of western Cornwall. It’s so remote that the villagers don’t use its name. Instead they call it ‘Hereabouts’ and most of them will never leave it. In these early years of the 1800s life is hard in this poor village. Even God has abandoned it. The chapel lies ruined, its minister ran off long ago. People make money how they can and the biggest bounty comes from the sea in the form of countless ships wrecked on the rocks. The villagers are Wreckers, raiding the broken vessels, stripping the wretched remains of the ships’ lost souls. Mary Blight is no different and one night she lives to regret how she robbed a dead lady of her fine boots.

Events are set in motion, continuing with Mary’s brave rescue of a half-drowned man tied to barrels and adrift in the rough sea. His name is Gideon Stone and he is a Methodist minister from Newlyn. Mary’s methods of healing are horrifying to Gideon – and to the delicate reader – and so the minister decides he must save the people of Porthmorvoren and he will begin with Mary Blight. And then the rumours, the whispers and the plots begin to brew…

Wrecker is a beautifully written and hugely atmospheric tale of life in this impoverished village, which seems cut off from the world around it. The only way out is on foot or by boat and few take to the sea lightly. Wreckers know better than anyone how perilous the sea often is. People fear it; women are barred from it. The superstitions of the villagers run deep and they are viewed by outsiders as Godless creatures. This is such wonderfully moody storytelling. You can almost smell the salt of the sea, feel its spray. There are hints of a dialect in their speech (but not enough to make the story difficult to read). Village life is fed by jealousy, rumour, drink and deprivation.

The relationship between men and women is particularly well observed. The men live hard lives but most of the women suffer even more and usually at the hands of their men. Religion, too, is scrutinised and it’s found wanting. Mary Blight must learn that she can depend on nobody but herself and it’s a difficult lesson. She sees glimpses of other lives and possibilities of a different kind of future but this is no fairy tale. Mary is such a strong character, in direct contrast to Gideon Stone.

One thing about the novel that did surprise me is that it has very little wrecking in it and this was a bit of a disappointment, particularly considering how the book begins. But, once I accepted this, I found myself hooked by what is a pleasingly slow-moving, atmospheric tale of a beautiful place at a time when that beauty was overshadowed by the dark danger of its coast and the brutality of life on its shores. Talking of beauty, though, what a stunning hardback this is!

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 Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

The Detective and the Devil | Lloyd Shepherd | 2016 (21 April) | 328p | Simon and Schuster | Review copy | Buy the book

The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd ShepherdIn the centre of the City of London stands the edifice of a mighty ogre, the East India Company, which has a reach that stretches across seas to the far dominions of the British Empire. In 1815, Constable Charles Horton of London’s River Police is called to the house of an East India Company clerk, Benjamin Johnson. Johnson, his wife and daughter lie murdered, almost no distance at all from the scene of an earlier crime that Horton will never be able to forget. Horton’s search of the house reveals that items may have been stolen, the evidence pointing towards the Johnson’s maid but when she too is found dead, Horton can be in no doubt that there are some secrets, Company secrets, that someone, somewhere is determined to keep hidden. Whatever the cost.

And so begins an investigation that affects not just Horton but also his wife Abigail, a woman still recovering from an earlier ordeal who continues to find comfort in her pursuit of natural philosophy. Someone is following Horton, putting himself and Abigail at risk, and the only men who can protect him, such as his mentor the magistrate John Harriott, are reaching the ends of their careers, even their lives. When Horton finds a link between the murders and the British territory of St Helena, a remote Atlantic island of no value to anyone except the East India Company, it’s almost a relief for Horton and Abigail. It is time to make a journey, but who can predict if St Helena will be any safer than the claustrophic stinking streets of London’s East End?

The Detective and the Devil is the fourth novel in Lloyd Shepherd’s series to feature Constable Charles Horton and Abigail. The novel stands alone well and so there is no need to have read the earlier books first but without them it would be harder to understand exactly what the Hortons have endured over the last few years, especially Abigail. These two people have been altered by the past but, even more than that, the cases that Horton has investigated have made him – and us – re-evaluate the very shape of the natural world, a world that is being rapidly digested by a British Empire that has no understanding at all of what it is consuming. Spurred on by the discoveries of great sea voyages and colonists, scientific investigation is at its height but some of what is discovered is hard to comprehend. There’s a malignancy as nature itself seems to fight back against greedy conquest. A conquest that thrives on the monster of empire – slavery. Reading the earlier books makes the events of The Detective and Devil easier to accept on levels other than the straightforward. But if you haven’t read them, then you can still heartily enjoy The Detective and the Devil and hopefully it will inspire you to go back to the beginning, particularly as this, I believe, may be the last.

Lloyd Shepherd’s novels aren’t like any others I can think of. They take another time and place and add to it a mythology so organic and heady that it grows through the books. Although the stories deal with scientists and detectives, the investigation of murders and the discovery of new lands, peoples and plants, there is an earthiness and timelessness to this world that is actually intoxicating. Although at times it feels like anything is possible, it still has to happen for a reason. There is a moral code here that rules and, in some ways, Horton is its enforcer. Abigail’s position is more complicated, made even more so as there are moments when she fears she hovers on the edge of madness. Horror exists on the verge of this world, watching.

In 1815 England is under attack from France and Napoleon is viewed as the monster above and beyond anything else that preys on the English. As we remember the fate of Napoleon, it seems fitting that this novel’s focus is the very distant St Helena. Much of The Detective and the Devil, though, is set in London, providing such a vivid portrait of a city divided by class and money. Abigail has the charm to move between the classes, Horton doesn’t, but he is a useful tool. This is a dirty, stinking place and it clashes with the fresh air, sea breezes and seclusion of St Helena where the final third of the book is set. But the island is far from paradise – slavery has spoiled it. I enjoyed the depiction of St Helena enormously. It’s a place where good and evil can run rampant. It’s beautifully evoked, its danger and beauty – its spell – explored.

The Detective and the Devil, just like each of the other three books, is utterly engrossing. Lloyd Shepherd’s imagination is as powerful as his writing. I read the novel in one glorious sitting. I was transported from my armchair to another time and place, sometimes frightening and somehow magical, in which I was so happy to be lost.

Other reviews
The English Monster
The Poisoned Island
Savage Magic

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Timothy L O’Brien

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 368
Year: 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Timothy L O'BrienReview
In the spring of 1865 America mourns the loss of its President, Abraham Lincoln, shot dead by John Wilkes Booth. With the Civil War so recently over – its soldiers not yet demobbed – Washington DC is a dangerous place, brutalised and fed by racism, powerful immigrant gangs, drink, opium, traumatised soldiers, freed slaves and greed. Everyone wants to get rich in the new nation and it’s not hard to do thanks to its many victims.

When detective Temple MacFadden discovers two diaries on a dead body at the B&O Railroad station in the city, his life becomes cheap indeed as everyone who is anyone seeks to have the diaries in their hands. Hardly surprising when one learns that the first is the diary of the president’s grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln while the other was written by his assassin. Within both, or so all sides believe, lie clues to a conspiracy that claimed the life of America’s president. The peace seems very fragile indeed.

As factions fight to recover the diaries, one man stands in the way: Temple McFadden, the hero of The Lincoln Conspiracy. While Temple tries to work out the significance of the diaries, with the help of his friend Augustus – born a free man in spite of his colour, he does his best to do the right thing despite the efforts of wily spymaster Allan Pinkerton, official thug Baker and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War – not a man to have as one’s enemy. Temple’s own wife Fiona isn’t entirely on Temple’s side either. A female doctor in these male-driven years, Fiona is more than capable of fighting her own battles and, despite her great love for her husband, she feels driven to protect Mrs Lincoln from the consequences of what is in her diary.

It’s no easy thing for the couple and their friends to stay ahead of the forces against them. They have to lose themselves in Washington’s most frightening places – swamps, prisons, hospitals for the mad, whorehouses – while using their wits to keep ahead.

These are fascinating times, though, and quite apart from the vivid settings, O’Brien feeds the book with details of the period, such as photography, the pullman trains, medicine, the movement of slaves from south to north, the soldiers and generals waiting to go home, including Custer. There are snippets from haunting poems throughout, evoking the hardships of the Civil War and the immediate aftermath, as well as flashbacks which add more colour to our knowledge of Temple’s life.

All is written with a fast, immediate prose, not surprising considering the author is a journalist. The style suits the mood of the investigative tale, peopled by men and women who are compelled to find out the truth while surviving day by day. There is a thrill to it. You can sense they enjoy it despite the dangers and the movement of the chase propels the story on.

While I found the ending less than satisfactory, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey as well as the insight into such a fascinating period of recent history. I’ll be looking out for more from Timothy L O’Brien and hope we meet Temple McFadden again.