Tag Archives: Victorian London

The Yard – Alex Grecian

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London 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t murdered for a while but his identity is still a mystery and the city’s residents have lost faith in the police. Scotland Yard is trapped in old-fashioned police protocols but a new Commissioner just back from India, a new Inspector in Murder just promoted up from Devon and a newly-discovered dismembered body in a trunk at Euston Square Station are about to change that.

Alex Grecian’s Victorian police procedural introduces a terrific pair of sleuths—Inspector Walter Day and Constable Hammersmith are a little uncertain they will manage the overwhelming case loads and win the trust of their fellow officers. But both are unafraid to operate out of integrity and neither has the good sense to go home when a gruesome case remains tantalizingly unsolved. They have plenty of work.

The body is a fellow murder detective and what has been done to him is sickening and inexplicable. The story is larded with gory detail—a major character is the self-appointed medical examiner, a doctor with a jones for the newly emerging discipline of forensic science. He’s a keeper–very colorful and intrepid man with a strong backstory and an even stronger appeal in the middle of a homicide investigation. No dull characters in this novel—chimney sweeps to frenzied, bloodthirsty maniacs are feisty, lurid, eccentric, certifiably mad, unaccountably sane, courtly, deadly and every iteration of unexpected human being. Grecian’s characterization skills are cinematic.

The plots–and there are several that intersect, veer off and unspool into a bizarre tangle in the end–are logical and terrible. London is grubby, smelly, murderous, streaked in blood, gore and horse manure. Threats abound and none are idle. The cops are so inundated with crimes they can never catch up and big clues fall between the cracks as they land on the wrong desk—or in the trash can.

But the new team is good at seeing connections and unafraid to consider patterns of criminal behavior that haven’t been part of a detective’s arsenal before. There’s a great introduction to the questionable idea of finger printing and a willingness to examine psychological profiling as London seems in the grip of multiple serial killers. Kid victims, cop victims, lady victims and sadistic killers are tucked behind every door and most of the doors are closed–but not for long.

The Yard is gritty, sort of disgusting, convincing and gripping. I liked the characters at least as much as the plot. I would pick up a sequel to Grecian’s debut novel—and I suspect, from the way this one leaves off, Inspector Day and his tough, humane sidekick Hammersmith will be back in trouble and in print soon enough.

The Yard   Alex Grecian | Putnam 2012

Cain His Brother – Anne Perry

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William Monk has been busted out of the police force in Victorian London and, with no other skills but detective work, set himself up as a private eye. When Genevieve Stonefield comes to him with a desperate tale of a missing husband, he suspects a fiscal or romantic entanglement. But Angus, the missing man, seems to have been a model of rectitude and there is no mistaking his wife’s distress. She believes he went to the Limehouse section of town where his wastrel twin brother Caleb haunts the docks and alleys, a fearsome murderous criminal.

As Monk sets off to find Caleb and determine if and how Angus has met with foul play, typhoid fever sweeps through the slums and Hester Latterly and several wealthy patrons convert an old warehouse into a makeshift hospital. Hester and Monk have some history but it is as much antagonism as attraction and they spend this book sparring relentlessly. Monk has reasons to visit the typhoid shelter and Heather has emergency nursing duties for one of her helpers who succumbs to the fever. The woman is the wife of Lord Rathbone, Angus and Caleb Stonefield’s childhood guardian—the plot thickens.

So, we have Cain and Abel—er, Caleb and Angus—plenty of excuses for Monk’s and Hester’s paths to cross on a regular basis, a seedy waterfront setting and a hunt for a missing identical twin. Alas, I figured out a major, major plot point before the fever had even taken hold in the filthy back alleys of London. But Anne Perry pulls out her usual bag of tricks and surprises in Cain His Brother and suspecting what really happens does not dim the pleasure in tracking what is happening. Monk is framed by a beautiful woman who accuses him publicly of attacking her, a charge that will ruin him and make it impossible for him to work. Certain society matrons have rather colorful and extremely veiled pedigrees. Perry throws in her version of the movie car chase—a wild hunt for a vicious perp on and along the Thames, on foot and on barges.

The William Monk mysteries are reliably satisfying. The sights and sounds of Victorian London, especially its seedier environs, are vivid and convincing. Hester and Monk’s wary circling is acerbic and fun to watch. I ran out of hours trying to keep up with overscheduled life and a seriously long YA book that is also a very good read, so I jumped into the polluted Thames with Monk, who can always be counted on for a thrill ride and a complex, twisted plot. Even knowing the key to the riddle of the disappearance didn’t help me to unravel all of it. I did, however, slide into the last chapter well before midnight. Murder mysteries will probably get me through the year.

Cain His Brother: A William Monk Novel (Mortalis)   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2010

Execution Dock – Anne Perry

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A discriminating reader I know advised me not to miss Anne Perry’s William Monk Victorian murder mysteries. Good advice. Execution Dock was intricate, wildly descriptive and is set in a world it’s easy to get lost in. Monk has been appointed Commander of the River Police and he is up against old ghosts and present evil that reaches far beyond the dodgy and treacherous waterfront.

The River Police close in on a pornographer and flesh peddler of young boys who operates a brothel of degradation and torture on a pleasure boat on the Thames. One of the boys held captive on the boat has been found badly burned by cigars with his throat cut. Monk snags the killer, Jericho Phillips, but Monk’s testimony and his wife’s about the horrors of Phillips’ trade are picked apart in court and a vicious murderer goes free. As stunning and terrible to the Monks is the tactic of the defense attorney who gets the killer off by attacking the credibility of two of his closest friends—William and Hester Monk.

The sights and smells and dangers of the waterfront are vivid and evocative and the characters in this story are all colorful. There is some very clever work in the first part of the book to throw the reader off the trail and it is well done enough to be really effective. Monk is torn between loyalty to his former commander, who died saving Monk’s life and whom he admired unreservedly, and the urgent necessity to disprove ugly allegations about the man that might be true.

Hester struggles with the day-to-day management of her clinic and the tragic lives of the prostitutes and impoverished Londoners who show up for medical care. She burns at her treatment on the witness stand by a man who once wanted to marry her. She determines to shield Monk from the pain of the revelations his sleuthing threatens to uncover by finding out who is linked to the sex slave business first. And she is meticulously protective of the ‘mudlark’, the young boy who survived by his wits gathering and selling flotsam from the mudflats of the river and who now lives with Hester and William.

Perry takes a fine scalpel to the motives and emotions of the main characters and the glimpse inside their heads is as fascinating as the efforts to catch the killer. Socially prominent people do completely out-of-character things—some admirable, some despicable, some irrationally risky. Wary denizens of the darkest alleys know more than they are willing to tell. Scuff, the Monks’ young charge, becomes a pawn in the deadly game played out on the river. Scurrilous charges begin to make the rounds, attacking William’s and Hester’s reputations and endangering the existence of the rough and tumble River Police unit.

There’s plenty of violence, plenty of fine writing and plenty of juicy plot. I’m adding Monk to my great all-time gumshoe list—but he makes it on there as much for the pleasure of reading about the indomitable Hester.

Execution Dock: A William Monk Novel (William Monk Novels)   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books     2009

A Christmas Odyssey – Anne Perry

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Just when you think you’ve bottomed out on genre books, Anne Perry’s A Christmas Odyssey comes along and stuns you. There is a raft of these bestselling Christmas books and the world Perry has created in this one is dark, depraved and devoid of anything remotely like tinsel. But it was fascinating, with clever clue-dropping, an insider’s knowledge of crime in Victorian London, and characters as grime-besmirched and morally contentious as adversaries in a court of law or rival theologians.

James Wentworth has everything in the world but his son Lucien as Christmas approaches. The young man has been lured by drugs and vice into a tunnel of sewers and corruption that runs beneath polite society and feeds on its weaknesses. Lucien would seem to be lost for good but Wentworth prevails on a friend, Henry Rathbone, to search for him. Henry collects a former pimp and brothel owner who has turned respectable and a “doctor” without a medical degree who runs a clinic for the down-and-out and enters the underworld.

The journey is lurid, overripe with sickening sensations, fraught with inescapable peril and peppered with colorful denizens of opium dens and whorehouses. Pubs are filthy, blood slicks stone steps in a dark alley, the mere mention of a vile crime boss inspires terrified silence, a legendary beauty haunts the scraps of information about Lucien and his descent into hell. Eventually, the unlikely trio takes on a gutsy teenage barmaid who knows something, and encounters a wraithlike old man in a lavender frock coat who is the key to the tragic story behind the story.

The streets, alleys and sewers are sinister and the festive holiday season begins to seem like the unreal realm. The interior struggles of the seekers are as interesting as their pursuit of Lucien and the truth. A Christmas Odyssey is a richly-detailed, intense journey with high stakes and wonderful characters. Evil and honor are at war in this book but there is never a simplistic attempt to paint the morbid and complex canvas in anything as obvious as black and white.

A Christmas Odyssey: A Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books   2010