Hatton & Roumande
I have just concluded a back-to-back read of the first two Hatton & Roumande mysteries by D E Meredith and here are my thoughts on the general genre and the books individually.
I am of a strange, divided opinion about the Victorian world. As a historian it bothers me, since it is almost too current and understandable to class as history in my mind, and the fact that it feels too recent often steers me away from it. I have, of course, watched and/or read the staple works of the era. I find Sherlock Holmes to be a little awkward and badly-tied together in literature and often too gung ho or arty in cinema (with perhaps the exception of some recent re-imaginings). But regardless, there is something about Holmes that speaks to the mystery lover within. Victorian literature generally leaves me cold. Dickens produced some nice pieces, but I was schooled on the like of Thomas Hardy and frankly I would rather read a Shanghai phonebook. Similarly, there are pieces of crime history and folklore of the era that do hook me: the infamous ‘ripper’ killings; Spring-heeled Jack (not heard of him? Then look him up); the Eilean Mor lighthouse (same again). You see, I deny the pull of the Victorian era as too modern and too dour and monochrome, and yet I will find myself wandering in the Brompton Cemetery in London and it steals my breath and transports me to a beautiful chilling world…
And that’s what this book did. It would not be unfair to throw in a phrase such as ‘CSI Victorian London’. This is about the very birth of the forensic art in a world that distrusts too much ‘Godless’ science. I expect the comparison annoys the author, so I won’t dwell on it, but it gives you a clue of the direction of the books. The tale is a story of two forensic pathologists from the famous St Bart’s in London, drawn into a murder investigation that just becomes more obscure and complex the more they dig. In fairness, I found the characters of the pair a little hollow in terms of description and explanation when compared to some of the incidental characters but perhaps that’s a good thing as it left me room to picture them in my own way. (I gather people find my own protagonists portrayed in a similar way, so I will certainly choose to see it as a strength! 😉
But the characters – while fascinating in their own right, and clearly central to the story – are not the main draw for me. Devoured hooked me in three ways.
1. The writing
I am, and have always been, a huge fan of the period horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft (and also Sterling Lanier’s Brigadier Ffellowes). And I was delighted to find that from almost the outset, parts of Devoured really put me in mind of his writing (the parts written in journal/correspondence form in particular.) They also reminded me a little of the Dracula story-telling style of Stoker. It would have been enough to hook me on its own. But those sections are interspersed with current investigation that keeps all the flavour and style of Victorian London and yet presents it in a form most accessible for a modern reader. That alone is a triumph. At no point did I ever tire of reading Devoured.
2. The plot
Kept me guessing right to the end. A mystery rarely does that (for anyone, not just me.) Roughly every 50 pages through I would put Devoured down, review what I knew, and try to deduce what had truly happened. I was never right. The whole plot is not so much a complex spider web, with a vicious spider at the centre and half a dozen dead flies, as an old sash window, home to two or three overlapping cobwebs, several spiders of varying unpleasantness, and a host of slightly worrying crane flies, dead wasps and so on. The plot of Devoured is complex and a well-crafted thing of chilling beauty. I challenge all comers to mail me with a solution before you are within 60 pages of the end!
3. The atmosphere
Devoured pulls out all the chilling Victorian winter atmosphere of any Dickens, Holmes, Ripper, Lovecraft tale and then some. Meredith’s affection for the era shines through in her writing and makes the reader not just see the story, but feel it; experience it with more than once sense. There are moments when I had to lower the book and exhale deeply after something was just so chillingly described that it made me pause. Equally, there are moments that made me chuckle with genuine affection and moments that made me wish I could truly see what Hatton was seeing.
Devoured is a masterpiece. Do not be put off if – like me – you’re a great one for neither whodunnits or Victoriana.
The Devil’s Ribbon (2013)
Following straight on from Devoured, I waded with great excitement into Meredith’s second book. Devil’s Ribbon is a slightly different proposition from Devoured. With less exotic retrospective (Lovecraft-style) it is a much more immediate story.
Based a couple of years after the first book, Devil’s Ribbon introduces new characters that are fun, fascinating and thoroughly well-crafted. Moreover, the protagonists (Hatton and Roumande) have acquired a great deal more depth and character and have moved from being principal characters to good and familiar friends. There seems to be stronger characterisation in this novel that really makes the reader see and understand the characters.
Style-wise there is little change from the first book (which is a blessing.) Devoured carried a deep atmosphere and graceful writing that I would hate to have surrendered.
But much as with Devoured, what really fascinates me is the plot and the intricacy of it. Devoured had a complex and incredible well-thought out plot. The Devil’s ribbon moves a step up the ladder from that. Some third- to half-way through TDR I formed an opinion of whodunnit, and even some basic theories as to how and why. I could see even then that there was more than one thread running throughout, and they would need examining separately, in the way Hatton does in his mortuary. One thread is a somewhat socio-political plot based around the dreadful history of the Irish potato famine and the Anglo-Irish troubles. The other – the central one – is somewhat more personal. I thought I had nailed it, though I could not work out as I read how all the loose ends tied in. I was, needless to say, wrong. Dammit! As I closed on the book’s end, I discovered that my clear-cut solution was only an ingredient of the truth, which was elegant in a way I am coming to see as typical of Meredith’s writing.
Moreover, I would say that I seem to have learned a lot from this book. A lot of history I was previously completely oblivious to.
So the series…
There is clearly no definite limit to what Meredith can do with her characters. Hatton and Roumande are strong characters and the first two books show that they are only becoming stronger and deeper as their author explores both their past and their soul (the former is key to the plot of book 2). he sky is the limit for this series, and I cannot wait to see what the author does next.
Go buy the books and check out DE Meredith at her website here, or on Twitter here. Audio edition of Devoured is already available and the audio of Devil’s Ribbon is released on July 1st.