Posts Tagged ‘victorian’
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’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.
This review has been a long time coming. I was always intrigued with the premise and I picked up the paperback a couple of years ago, intending to read it, but scheduled reviews and my own writing got in the way. Last year, when I had a brief lull, I tried to find time again, but again events conspired to stop me. I bought the audio book, thinking it might allow me to circumvent my own workload, but I soon discovered that I simply don’t have the time for audio books, between work and kids. In the end, I bought the kindle version (so yes, I now have three copies of the Somnambulist!) and recently I found enough of a gap in things to actually read it.
Good job I did.
I’m not particularly au fait with the Victorian era. I’ve seen a few movies, of course, read some Conan Doyle, D.E. Meredith, Stockwin, Cornwell, Collard and so on, but it’s mostly been centred around military or espionage plots. I used to love the Edgar Allen Poe type genre, but it seems that for the last decade or two no one has been able to write gothic Victoriana without throwing in vampires, which has started to bore me to death . Not so, this book. The Somnambulist has a much more real feel to it, is solidly grounded in the real world, does not run to monsters and fantasy.
The plot is nicely involved and with a number of surprises and twists, as young Phoebe Turner, through a series of unpleasant circumstances, finds herself the companion of a lady in an eerie gothic country house. The contrast, incidentally, between her early days in squalid London and this country residence, is very nicely put over. In her new life, Phoebe starts to unearth clues as to the gaps in her own past. Quite simply there is far too much in the book to try and put over here, and spoilers for the Somnambulist would be all too easy to slip in. Suffice it to say, the book is a rather twisted journey of realisation and discovery filled with rich characters and chilling moments, written against a vivid background.
If I were to label two down sides for me, they would be the level of involvement of the book – which at times became perhaps over-complex, forcing me to try and mentally place all the strands as I read – and the pace. I realise that the latter is a natural symptom of the milieu in which Fox is writing, so that’s not a comment on her ability or style, but more on Victorian history and why I don’t often read it. The more Fox has tried to put over the most authentic feel of character and descriptive for the era she can, the more the plot slowed by necessity, which is my main problem with 18th/19th century literature (I cannot stand Thomas Hardy, am excruciatingly bored by Austen and the Brontes, and just about tolerate Dickens.)
That being said, please don’t be put off by this. The characters are extremely realistic, the locations fascinating, the narrative atmospheric almost to the point of smog leaking from the pages, and the twisted plot and its excellent conclusion very well planned and well written. As a debut it was a heady and fascinating book to read, and it has achieved what is probably the most important goal of any debut author – it has made me put Fox’s second book, Elijah’s Mermaid, on my ‘must read’ list.
Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.
And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.
And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.
Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.
The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.
Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.
In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.
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.