Posts Tagged ‘murder’
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.
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.
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.
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.
For me, Murder in Absentia is a solidly 4* novel. A treat in numerous ways, a surprise in many, engrossing and unusual. I’m now applying a 5-point system for review, and given that, here’s why I rate Assaph Mehr’s work so highly.
- The world that Mehr creates. This book is a work of fantasy, though it is so closely-knit with the history of Imperial Rome that were it not for certain elements within the plot, it would be hard to see this as anything other than straight Roman fiction. The main location in this world seems to be a mash-up of Rome, the bay of Naples and Alexandria. It is clearly a fantastical version of the ancient city and culture of Rome, with geographical elements of the others drawn in. The naming conventions, social customs, dress, military, households and even religious aspects are very clearly Roman. The flavour is Roman. And it’s flavoured very well.
- The plot. Despite fantasy elements, this is essentially a whodunnit. It is a proper original mystery. Starting with a body – killed apparently during some dark, magical ritual – the hero, Felix the Fox, is retained by the victim’s father to solve the mystery of his death. The plot is full of twists, turns, herrings of the ruddy kind, and avoids too many cliches as it brings us to a satisfactory conclusion.
- The negative point here, and the reason for a 4* review rather than a 5* one: The book could have done with a thorough copy-edit. Lines like “he eyes were”, “an administrative organisations” and “if I we needed any more” are examples of the small typos that creep in. There is also a heavy tendency to mix tenses wihtin a sentence, which can be quite jarring. Also, anachronisms like “juiced up” sit a little difficult with me, though that’s really a personal preference, I suppose.
- The author’s handling of magic. There’s a lot of fantasy out there, and though I tend these days to concentrate on Historical Fiction, I’ve actually read plenty of it. Magic is often very Dungeons and Dragons in fantasy, or perhaps very Lord of the Rings. “Fireball! Magic Mouth! Prismatic Spray! These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Mehr’s form of magic used in the book is much more subtle and realistic, more reminiscent of the ritual in Lovecraftian horror or suchlike. It is all rites and tattoos of power and herbs and incantations. In short it worked, reading surprisingly believably and actually, oddly, it fits in well with the Roman feel of the background. You will, within the first 20% of the book, be viewing this magic as an everyday part of the culture.
- The detail. They say the devil is in the detail but if so, the devil is one hell of a helper to an author. The sheer scale of the bits and pieces of research Mehr has put into his Roman history for the book is impressive. From the nature of Roman Numina to the traditions of funerals and burial to the daily routine for the seeing of clients by Roman patrons, Mehr has really put in the work in his research.
So there you have it. A fascinating fantasy world, full of impressive real details and with a realistic and interesting type of magic, hosts a twisted and complex murder plot. Only the lack of a little proofing prevents this from being a genre-founding, mould-breaking novel. No, actually, it doesn’t. The novel is still that, and minor irritations over the specific text should in no way prevent you from buying and reading this. If you’re into Rome or Fantasy, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re into both, you’ll LOVE it.
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.