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Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

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Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

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Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Last Legionnaire

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I’ve been a fan of the Jack Lark books since I first picked up ‘The Scalet Thief’. Paul Fraser Collard has created a character and an overall story that was fresh, new and exciting, and while it looked like it might be a ‘one hit wonder’, he has consistently proved otherwise. I have heard Jack Lark being described as ‘like Sharpe’. To some extent that’s true, but we’re just about at the point now where I would say Sharpe is like Jack Lark, for he is a far more vivid, exciting and three dimensional character than his Napoleonic comparison.

Lark has been through 5 books now. He has been in Britain, the Crimea, India and Persia. What could Collard do with him next? Where could he take him? To be honest, I had certain expectations with this book. The title evokes certain things, and before I picked it up, my mind was already loaded up with Algeria, forts, white feathers, berbers and exotic African desert scenery. I was wrong, of course. The Foreign Legion has been involved in conflicts all over the place, not just in North Africa.

Having been finally released from the military and retired under his own name, Jack returns to London, hoping to pick up where he left off a decade ago. Here we are treated to a view into his past, prior to even the first book, and a view of mid 19th century Lond that rivals any I have read. Unfortunately, he is unable to keep himself out of trouble and, when his actions inadvertantly put those about whom he cares in danger, he finds himself in an untenable position.

In the end he is given a good old ‘offer he can’t refuse’ by a former Intelligence officer he neither trusts nor likes, and finds himself shipped off to Italy on a mission to find a boy who has fled his comfortable life and joined the French Foreign Legion, and to bring him back. But things are never as easy as they seem, and the Legion are committed to war against the forces of the Austrian Empire. His mission is further complicated by the addition of the London girl he once loved and her young son to the travel group – a pair he has vowed to look after. He must now protect people while throwing himself into deadly danger to retrieve a boy who might not even want to come home.

It’s a rich plot. All Collard’s books have rich plots, but this one overtakes them all, in my opinion. Though all his novels have been good, the first (The Scarlet Thief) I had still held to be my favourite. I do believe, though, that The Last Legionnaire has overtaken it to become the best in the series, and by quite some margin at that. The exploration of Jack’s origins and his return to old haunts leads to a very complex examination of his character and motivations, which is given far more space than in previous books. Additionally, we are moving into a whole new era. The war into which Jack is heading is one of those pivotal moments where the old world meets the new. This is a time when the ancient butts up against the mechanised, (cavalry charges and railways, for instance) with spectacular results.

As always, Collard’s writing is flawless. His prose is excellent, his characterisation vivid and realistic, his description cinematic and his pace relentless. The story will enthral and fascinate you, you will learn things (I know I did), and at times you will feel the edge of heartbreak. Moreover, it is anything but predictable.

This is an absolute cracking book. Collard proving he deserves to be placed among the very best writers in the genre. HIGHLY recommended.

Written by SJAT

November 24, 2016 at 9:55 pm

Dark Waters

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I find myself exultant that I was once more able to immerse myself in Blake’s world of 18th Century Preston, and yet also saddened that I have now read all the Cragg and Fidelis mysteries written thus far and am looking across a probably long span until book 5 puts in an appearance.

As with the other three of these books I have read (and not, sadly in the correct order, for this is book 2) Blake has done a damnably good job with Dark Waters. As a mystery, it hits all the right spots, being more filled with red herrings and misdirection than a poorly-signed crimson fishery. What seems initially to be a simple case of death by misadventure soon becomes obviously politically motivated as Preston undergoes an election. But there is more to it than that. So much more that you’ll not grasp the truth until Blake chooses to reveal it near the end. With most mystery novels I am comfortable at least having a stab at a solution part way through. Not with this one.

The characters are as wonderfully drawn as always. In particular our two heroes, the stolid coroner and the light-hearted doctor. But also the entire supporting cast – both those who will go on to other books and those who are just one-shot characters – are lifelike, colourful and eminently readable.

But pushing aside plot and character, once again for me the great achievement of Blake is to make a long-gone era in place that is familiar to me in its modern incarnation a vivid and engaging place. 1740s Preston is displayed in all its fascinating seediness, for there is much more seedy and underhanded to this world than glorious and noble. It is a world of blood and mud and poverty and vile things, scattered with pockets of humanity and civilization as the world gradually modernises. In the other books we have been treated to the unseenly underbelly of the noble classes, the stinking rotten world of the tanners and more. In Dark Waters we are treated to an 18th century election. And if you think modern elections are dirty, underhanded and wicked things, wait til you read this!

Once again, Blake’s work is a triumph. I for one can’t wait to see the next installment.

The Lone Warrior

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I’m behind on reading one of my favourite series, but I’m catching up now. The Lone Warrior is the fourth book in Paul Fraser Collard’s excellent mid-nineteenth century series and, coincidentally is out in paperback today.

Jack Lark bean some time ago in The Scarlet Thief as something of an anomaly, an imposter. A low-ranker impersonating an officer. It was a very singular tale with, as far as I could see, little scope for an ongoing series. Then Paul surprised me with The Maharajah’s General, which repeated certain elements of the first, with impersonation and subterfuge, but also blew a hole in the very idea by revealing his true self and sending the series on something of a sharp tangent. This was good as a series, especially one with such a unique concept, would soon become stale if it simply repeated that concept over and over. So the third book – The Devil’s Assassin – took us in new directions. Jack was no longer wearing a mask, and instead went into tremendous action as his true self. And at the end of that book, he was free of his long-standing lie and released from the military.

So when I came to Lone Warrior, I truly had no idea what to expect. Jack was no longer in the army. He was no longer pretending to be someone he wasn’t. What could happen next? In fact what does happen is a new and fascinating angle. What could drag Jack back into the world of war and danger? What else but a woman. And the danger? Well Jack has faced it in the Crimea, with a rogue Maharajah and then in Persia. And throughout the second book, when he was serving in India, I kept wondering when we would encounter the Sepoy Mutiny, one of the few great events of Raj history of which I’m actually aware. And now, in book four, we’re there.

I won’t spoil the plot. If you’ve read the other books then you know what sort of thing to expect. If not, you’re in for derring-do and thunderous action. A character who is down-to-earth and practical living in the world of the English gentleman amid a sea of the empire’s enemies. All right, I’ll try to nudge the story without ruining it. Jack has fallen for a girl. It’s easy to see why when you read her. And after saving her from some dreadful people, he agrees to take her back to her home in Delhi. His timing is somewhat poor, arriving in the city the day before said Sepoy Mutiny kicks off and drags the whole of India into war, challenging English rule and almost succeeding. And so Jack finds himself in a city besieged by the enemy. Oh it doesn’t end there, and Jack finds himself once more serving with the British, displaying his forte – the art of killing.

And therein lies what for me is the great strength of the novel: the British siege of Delhi. The action is brutal and thick and fast and the pace never lets up. Nor, incidentally does the horror or violence, though Collard manages to enfold it all in a great epic tale of adventure and sometimes Flashman-esque action. But yes, to the siege. There are two movie sequences that to me portray the utter chaos of battle better than all others. The lesser of the two is the opening to Gladiator. The better is the start of Saving Private Ryan. Well, that is what you’ve got in Collard’s siege of Delhi. This is a third of the book at least, with all the action, intensity and brutality of the D-Day landings. It is warfare masterfully told. Gloriously horrifying, and it proves once more that Paul Fraser Collard is at the top of his game and the top of the genre.

Lone Warrior is exhilarating and packed with vivid characters and scenes and deserves to be read. Go buy it, people.

A Dark Anatomy

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Having been enthralled with Blake’s third and fourth books in the Cragg and Fidelis series, I felt it only right to go back and cover the ones I’ve missed. This, then, is the first book of the series. Having gone from the latest to the first, I expected to be less impressed, for it’s natural for writers to grow and improve with their work, but all I can say is this must have been a heck of a debut, for it matches his more recent novels in quality, style and content.

And I also expected some sort of lengthy introduction to the characters and the setting, and to experience the moment when the two title characters of the series meet and become friends. But no. Not for Blake. We are thrown straight into the world as it stands with no messing about, for a mystery waits to be untangled. That was rather refreshing, I think, for ‘origin stories’ can often take up enough of a first book that they rather eclipse the plot. Not so: Dark Anatomy.

The plot of this first book revolves around a squire’s wife found dead in the woods with a cut throat. But this is no simple murder. Far from it. For there lurk deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction among the locals, marital troubles, potential dark magicks brought back from the New World, troublesome con-men, secretive itinerant workers, stolen bodies and so much more. I won’t delve any deeper into the plot than that for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that I had more than one surprise as the plot unfolded. The plot itself was a work of genius and if anything is better than the other two I read, for the solution is simply masterful and ingenious.

Blake paints a picture of Regency north-west England that is at once realistic and immersive, and yet accessible and eminently readable. His characters are believable and the protagonists sympathetic. The whole thing comes out as a well-wrapped package of mystery that will give you a few very happy hours opening.

I highly recommend all Robin Blake’s books, but start with this one.

Skin and Bone

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A week or so ago I discovered, and started reading, Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis mysteries. Go back a week and check out my review of the Scrivener to see how highly  I rated it. Well never one to subscribe to the ‘too much of a good thing’ theory, I read the fourth and latest book next. And guess what? It’s better.

Once again, I found that Blake had engineered a plot that was just complex enough to titillate the brain cells. Between about pages 50 and 100 I formed my opinion of what had happened. I got it about 75% right, I reckon, but there were aspects I hadn’t realised were coming.

For that is what Blake does. He presents you with a case, and then throws in tangents. None of these, I might add, are included just for the heck of it. They all have purpose and bear on the story as a whole, even if in a rather circumspect manner. I am beginning to see a style evolve. The Blake method. The same way Christie always had her detective gather her suspects for the reveal, or Columbo says ‘just one more thing’. Blake is a master, I suspect, of redirection. And that creates plots that are deep and complex, requiring some picking apart. You can never say ‘he did it, guv’ because there is ALWAYS more to it than that.

Once again, Blake shows an almost unparalleled knowledge of regency Lancashire and once again he displays it in such a way that you learn and experience and feel that you’re there, but never with ‘info dump’. The history is always woven into the story, which remains accessible to everyone. Anyone can read these books and enjoy them, regardless of era. Go on. You’ll love ’em.

If anything, the main characters are more likeable and believable than in the previous volume. There is definitely less preachy goodness among the protagonists, which makes it feel all the more authentic. I suspect that this is because the plot of book 4 revolves around a subject which even in the 1740s would shock and revolt, so the reactions are realistic, while in the previous one, slavery is abhorrent to the main characters, but that really puts them in a minority in the period.

So here we go, without wanting to provide spoilers:

A body is found in a tanning pit (the mechanics of this are vile. Don’t read while eating your lunch like I did). It is a baby, though there is some discussion as to whether it is a stillbirth or a murdered newborn. Thus begins an investigation you won’t be able to help yourself second-guessing which takes in the modernisation and progress of the city, the loss of ancient ways, the danger of noble monopolies, the rather seedy goings-on below (and above!) stairs in the houses of the great and good, and a disaster that, while almost costing Cragg his career, in some ways makes him. And where the previous book left me wanting to pursue the fate of those who escaped, this has a very satisfactory ending and an excellent dramatic conclusion.

In short, folks, it’s a win. Read this series. I’m going to catch up on the ones I’ve missed shortly.

The Scrivener

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Every now and then I come across a new series of books and wonder ‘why haven’t I come across these before?’ This is most definitely one of those. Robin Blake has created an immersive series set in, for me, a largely unknown era.

The Scrivener is in fact the third in a series, currently of 4, of mysteries set in mid 17th Lancashire. The book is billed as a Cragg and Fidelis mystery. Cragg is Preston’s coroner, and his friend Fidelis is a doctor. Between them, their skillsets and authority give them most of what they need to pick apart complex murders and plots, but it is not quite that straightforward. In fact, the book is written from the point of view of Cragg, and Fidelis seems to be more of a supporting character. In fact, Cragg’s clever and forthright wife is almost as helpful in their solution as Fidelis, though I have thus far read only one of the four books.

The Scrivener is a complex plot, which seems to have several threads with at best tenuous connections. A businessman shot dead in Preston, who seems to have been swindled. A trade mission to Guinea which is being investigated by an insurance agent. A trove of Civil War treasure found on Preston moor by a man now suffering a dreadful disabling medical condition, a will with peduliar conditions… it’s a wealth of fun for the mystery fan. The threads tie up nicely as the book draws to a close in the manner of all good mysteries. If I had one complaint about the plot it was a minor dissatisfaction that not everything in those threads is fully detailed and viewed by the reader. Some of it is reduced to a single line of second hand report. Still, this is merely the tidying up of the case. It just set my OCD twitching. The one that got away still nags at me, but enough about that in case I cause spoilers.

The writing is excellent, in that Blake manages to evoke the feel of the 17th century and create a brooding atmosphere while at the same time making everything relevant to the modern reader, easy to digest and at times perfectly light-hearted and enjoyable. The characters are likeable and believeable. They do not so conform to stereotypes that they  are common, which is nice, since mystery protagonists often do. Again, with characters, there is one thing that nags at me, which is that the protagonists (or Cragg at least) is at times a little too good and politically incorrect for the time, in respetc of slavery and bear-baiting, for example. It really doesn’t spoil the book, mind, and probably makes it accessible to a number of readers who would otherwise be put off. Blake’s history and social culture of 1740s Lancashire is stop on, thorough, and fascinating, to the extent that I lost track of the things I learned in this book. Best of all, for me, is that I live just across the Pennines from Preston and have spent quite a bit of time in the area, so a lot of this is quite familiar to me.

I would recommend this book (and therefore probably the series) to readers of historical fiction, and to lovers of mystery. To those who fill the middle group in that Venn diagram, you’ll love it. I see readers of D.E. Meredith’s Hatton and Roumande mysteries loving Robin Blake, for example.

Written by SJAT

May 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm