Top Ten Victorian Mysteries

I came to crime late in life, by which I mean that my preferred reading and my early novels had to do with the mysteries of different genres. But I have always been interested in 19th-century England: the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots, the mansions and the slums, the low status of women and immigrants, sexual hypocrisy. I was brought up on Trevelyan’s English Social History and have Henry Mayhew’s London and the London Poor and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, not to mention English Arts Council backing and my publisher, Honno, to thank for the emergence of my first Victorian crime novel in 2013. Those who have read The Colours of Corruption and its companion, The Illusion of Innocence, will be aware that I am not interested in detectives per se and shun police procedurals. I write about crime from the point of view of a police artist who does not work “by the book” but tends to act on impulse and his own creative instincts. My choice of ten Victorian mysteries is, therefore, limited to books that made their mark on me as a child (by 19th-century authors) and modern novelists whose work I have read more recently.

1) Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, my first influence. My mother won this book as a school prize and, as a fairly small child, a bookworm, I stole the volume from the shelves and devoured every dark and creepy story (The Tell-tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and the like), smacking my young lips with relish and giving myself nightmares.

Top Ten Victorian Mysteries

2) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is not so much a novel as a very well-crafted and chilling short story. Yet it is a grand mystery in which we see an outwardly worthy Victorian longing to free himself of his finer attributes in order to luxuriate in his baser instincts. Child that I was when I read the book, I found the idea of the dual nature of man terribly unsettling. So that’s what happens when you give in to temptation. Do we all have a beast within us, waiting to be released by drugs or other means?

3) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. This was a set book at school, probably abridged, which I read avidly, searching for ghosts and not finding them. There were possibly too many coincidences for modern tastes but they did not interfere at all with my gobbling up of the novel. I remember the characters being very well drawn and identifying more with the stronger, so-called “ugly” girl than with her wishy-washy beautiful half-sister; I took very much to heart the observation, in the face of male oppression, that “our endurance must end, and our resistance begin.”

4) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle was pure escapism. I will never forget that oversized and possibly ghostly dog, striking terror into the hearts of the landed Baskerville family and the quivering reader, too. How did that huge paw print appear near the corpse of Sir Charles? Of course, Sherlock and Watson would solve the crime. Could I beat them to it? Quickly, I turned the page to find out. And the next, and the next…

5) The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a more recent read. Victorian social values again take precedence in Kate Summerscale’s 2009 reexamination of a true crime, the Road Hill House murder of 1860, when three-year old Saville was murdered and horribly disposed of in the outside privy. Mr Whicher, the detective brought in to solve the crime, has his suspicions, based on a bloodstained piece of cloth torn from a woman’s petticoat and found during the initial search for the missing boy. But his suspect tells lies in court, is released, and Whicher is discredited. So skillful is the writing that the reader feels the detective’s frustration, his disappointment, and understands his eventual breakdown. When he retires from the force, a broken man, he is forced to live with his failure for another five years before the murderer eventually confesses.

6)   A number of contemporary authors revisit Victorian literature for characters or plots and, in 1997, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs was published, the Maggs of the title being none other than the convict Abel Magwitch of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The story centers on Maggs’s quest to meet his “son,” Henry Phipps (Pip), who has mysteriously disappeared, having closed up his house and dismissed his household. While waiting for Phipps to return to London, Maggs enters the service of Phipps’s neighbor and eventually meets up with the young and broke up-and-coming novelist Tobias Oates (a thinly disguised Charles Dickens), who finds in Maggs a character from whom to draw much-needed inspiration for a forthcoming novel. Wheels within wheels.

7) In a similar vein, Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George (2006) makes the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle his main protagonist, examining the writer’s life, loves, and beliefs and tying them in with the case of George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor and son of a local vicar, who is wrongly accused of mutilating and killing horses and imprisoned for the crime. As well as exploring Conan Doyle’s spiritualism, his platonic extramarital affair, and his travels abroad, Barnes examines the racism of Victorian England that caused an innocent man to be blamed for a crime, never mind the lack of evidence.

8) Margaret Atwood’s book, Alias Grace (1996) is about the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in Upper Canada. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment. Margaret Atwood fictionalizes the case, inventing criminologist Dr. Simon Jordan to interview and possibly treat the now middle-aged and, seemingly, resigned prisoner. He fails. No conclusions are reached as to her guilt or innocence and readers are left to sift the evidence for themselves.

9) Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters is a truly gripping story, brutal, daring, and refreshing, about marginalized members of Victorian society and what they have to do to get by. A young woman, Sue, daughter of a convicted murderess, is raised by a band of thieves and baby farmers (echoes of Fagin and Dickens’s Oliver Twist, though without any of the author’s sentimentality) and persuaded to enter into a plan with “Gentleman” Richard Rivers to swindle an unmarried heiress out of her fortune. Sue is to become Maud’s maid, smoothing the way for “Gentleman’s” seduction. But Sue and Maud fall in love. Yes, it’s a story of lesbian love, but none the worse for that, it is erotic and unnerving in all the right ways. And so well written! I loved it.

10) The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber is pure Dickens leavened with a hefty dash of dirty reality.   All the familiar tropes of high-Victorian fiction are here: the mad wife, the cut-above prostitute, the almost-artist, and the opaque governess are presented in modern, eyes-wide-open, sexually explicit terms. William Rackham, a failed author now running a business producing cheap cosmetics, comes across and ultimately buys Sugar, a highly desirable, literate prostitute whom he introduces into the family home as his daughter’s governess. What a plot! What lovely flawed characters! And what writing! Faber’s detail and description are superb.

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