The Top Six Victorian Novels to Read After Watching Sherlock
You’ve had your fix of Mr. Cumberbatch on screen and Conan Doyle on the page. Now you want more. Why not take a look at these novels, which exemplify the richness of detective/ crime/suspense fiction in Victorian England—sensational novels that, as contemporaries said, “preached to the nerves” and demonstrate, more than a century later, that great storytelling comes in all forms.
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)
Possibly the best reading advice I’ve been given is to hang in there past the first fifty or so pages of Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece, since you won’t be able to put down the next seven hundred. Told in different voices by multiple narrators, this creepy and sinister mystery features one of the finest villains in fiction, Count Fosco. Intelligent and brave Marian Halcombe—who, along with drawing teacher Walter Hartright, fights to protect the rights of the orphaned heiress Laura Fairlie—describes the corpulent count in these terms: “He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes, as his wife does—I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, as she holds hers.”
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary E. Braddon (1862)
“[Lady Audley] had come into the neighborhood as the governess in the family of a surgeon… No one knew anything of her except that she came in answer to an advertisement which Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, had inserted into the Times… the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school in Brompton, where she had once been a teacher. But this reference was so satisfactory that none other was needed…”
Who is the beautiful Lady Audley, and how is she connected to the disappearance of George Talboys, recently returned from Australia? Sir Michael Audley’s nephew, Robert, reluctantly investigates the mysterious past of his uncle’s second wife. Spoiler alert: the novel features a female villain pitted against a male detective and pays close attention to the process of detection. It focuses on the dark side of seemingly respectable domestic life. Published in 1862, Lady Audley went through eight printings in three months. Its twenty-seven-year-old author wrote eighty more novels.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864)
Dickens’s Bleak House might be the obvious choice here since it introduces Inspector Bucket, arguably the first police detective in fiction. But Our Mutual Friend, a later, multilayered work about money, death, garbage, and crime, should be read both for its variety of characters and voices and for the chilling development of the relationship between the insouciant upper-class lawyer Eugene Wrayburn and the tortured schoolmaster Bradley Headstone. Their competition with one another over the affections and loyalty of Lizzie Hexam morphs into a mutual obsession, and the two men track each other through the streets of Victorian London. “I goad the schoolmaster to madness…” Wrayburn says. “One night I go east, another night north… Sometimes, I walk; sometimes, I proceed in cabs, draining the pocket of the schoolmaster… [I] tempt [him] to follow, turn suddenly, and catch him before he can retreat… and he undergoes grinding torments… Thus I enjoy the pleasures of the chase, and derive great benefit from the healthful exercise.”
The Experiences of Loveday Brook, Lady Detective by Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1894)
Part of a surge in detective fiction that took place in the 1890s, including a spate of novels featuring women detectives, Pirkis’s Loveday Brook is unusual in that she’s a professional detective, unmarried, and in her thirties. She’s competent, clever, and detects as a career—not, for instance, to clear her husband’s name or for some other mitigating reason. These collections of short stories were initially published in Ludgate Monthly in 1893 and then in book form the following year.
A bit too much told in dialogue form for my taste, the stories are nonetheless worth reading for the thrill of seeing a female detective solving crimes using common sense and logic. As her boss, Ebenezer Dyer, puts it: “I only know she is the most sensible and practical woman I ever met. In the first place, she has the faculty—so rare among women—of carrying out orders to the very letter: in the second place, she has a clear, shrewd brain, unhampered by any hard-and-fast theories; thirdly, and most important item of all, she has so much common sense that it amounts to genius—positively to genius, sir.”
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)
If you haven’t read these two classics before, now is the time. Stevenson’s haunting novella of the respectable Dr. Jekyll and his murderous alter ego, Mr. Hyde, and Orczy’s rollicking historical thriller/romance about the mysterious English Pimpernel who rescues aristocrats caught in the French Revolution remain page-turners and are as fresh on the page today as when they were first published.
Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines (May 2017), the first two novels in the Kitty Weeks Mystery series, featuring an ambitious female journalist in 1910s/World-War I-era New York.