Victorian Crime Mystery Fiction in Britain
Everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, but what if you want to go beyond the great man and read some different crime fiction set in the same period? Luckily there's plenty to choose from!
The Victorian era is the main event here, competing with the medieval era for the most popular period for historical crime fiction, but before we get to that I wanted to mention an early 19th century series which strictly falls into the Regency era, i.e. before Queen Victoria came to the thrown of Britain. That series is the Wrexford & Sloane series by Andrea Penrose, the first book of which is Murder on Black Swan Lane. The Earl of Wrexford is brilliant but reckless, and when one of his staunchest critics turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect, and as if that wasn’t enough, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist is skewering him in the press. Somehow he has to clear his name and restore his reputation. You might not think that a wealthy aristocratic and an impoverished cartoonist make for the most likely crime fighting duo, but it works rather well.
First up for the Victorian era proper is The Printer’s Coffin by M.J. Carter (outside Britain it was called The Infidel Stain), which is the second book featuring investigative duo Avery & Blake. In the first book, The Strangler Vine, they were in India, but for this second book they are in London, investigating a series of murders in London’s printing district. This book is rich in historical detail, particularly in relation to the smutty print trade (this is a far cry from Fleet Street). As works quite well in detective duos, Avery and Blake are very different characters, but for the purposes of the story at least they work together well. They also return for a third outing in The Devil’s Feast, which explores the gourmet food business and features real life historical chef Alexis Soyer.
Still in the early part of the Victorian era, and we find ourselves zipping up north to Edinburgh in 1847, where we are shown around by young trainee doctor Will Raven, a brilliant but erratic man who finds himself investigating the mysterious deaths of young women in the city in The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry. What’s interesting about this book is that it isn’t Raven’s job to investigate, but he just gets dragged into it. He’s helped somewhat by his boss, Dr Simpson, and also a young housemaid, Sarah Fisher. I always like it when you get some real history served up with your crime, and this book certainly delivers as you’ll learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about Victorian medicine and in particular the development of anaesthetics. It really is fascinating, and combined with a puzzling mystery and page turning plot you can’t go far wrong. The author really knows their stuff, which is not surprising as it is actually a pair of writers writing under a pseudonym: bestselling author Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman who is a consultant anaesthetist. There’s a sequel, The Art of Dying, and a third book recently released, A Corruption of Blood.
When I think of a Victorian investigator, I’m thinking a London bobby, or a private detective wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe, but they aren’t all like that. A case in point is the Lady Emily Ashton Mysteries, where the titular character is truly a high society detective. In the first book, And Only to Deceive, Lady Emily marries Philip, the Viscount Ashton, only for him to die on safari not long after. She later discovers in his journals that he was so much more than the man she knew. He was a gentleman scholar and an antiquities collector. As she gets to know about him and his life, she stumbles on dangerous secrets involving priceless stolen artifacts… If you want a Victorian mystery series written from a different perspective, this may be the series for you, and author Tasha Alexander has written plenty for you to get your teeth into, with fifteen books in the series so far.
While there is a lot of variety to Victorian crime fiction, the quintessential image is the Scotland Yard detectives investigating brutal murders (a la Jack the Ripper) in the murky back streets of London. If this is what you are after, you should read Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad books. In Victorian London, there are only twelve detectives, known as the Murder Squad, which was created after the spectacular failure of the police to capture Jack the Ripper. Even they aren’t immune however, and when one of their own is murdered, they must investigate. The squad’s newest detective, Walter Day, is assigned to the case, and with the help of the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr Bernard Kingsley, they hunt down the perpetrator – but it appears they aren’t finished with the Murder Squad yet… There are five novels and a novella in the series, the first of which is The Yard, with no new books in the series for a few years, much to the disappointment of the author’s many fans, my wife among them!
A good detective duo, often features a mismatched pair of investigators, and this is certainly true in the case of Oscar De Muriel’s Victorian detective series. Inspector Ian Frey is a hard working, aristocratic investigator, who became a detective mainly to get away from his family, and stop his father pestering him to take up pursuits more appropriate to his station. He’s made quite a few enemies in London however, and before he knows it he’s packed off to Edinburgh to investigate what his bosses fear may be a Ripper copycat killer. He’d rather investigate the case on his own, but finds himself working under Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray who seems as mad as they come, and a firm believer in the supernatural. It is fair to say they don’t get on throughout much of the first book, The Strings of Murder, but there must be something that keeps them together, because De Muriel has written six novels in the series so far. The characters are great, the history is good, and this is an easy, enjoyable series to read.
This article is an edited extract from my book, The Crime Fiction Tour of Britain, which is available in Kindle and Paperback format from Amazon. Take a look now to find more Regency & Victorian crime fiction, historical crime fiction from other eras and a tour of contemporary crime fiction in all regions of the UK. You also find out about the book on Goodreads here.