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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian England’

THE VANISHING MAN by Charles Finch: Book Review

I always find it interesting when an author decides to write a prequel to an existing series.  The Charles Lenox novels, featuring the protagonist as a private detective, is set in the Victorian era; The Vanishing Man, the second prequel to Charles Finch’s first mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place in 1853, some 15 years into the queen’s reign.

Charles has become a bit of an outcast because of his desire to become a detective.  To choose such a profession simply isn’t done in the rigid aristocratic society into which he was born, and it has resulted in fewer luncheon invitations and a not-so-subtle withdrawal from the ranks of England’s most eligible bachelors, at least in the thoughts of the mothers of marriageable-age daughters.  But Charles is content with his decision.

Still, being human and sensitive to his demotion by society, he is pleased when he receives an invitation from the most august nobleman in the country, the Duke of Dorset.  The duke’s family ranks immediately below the royal family, and his home and personality reflect his prominence.  To call his residence a mansion would be an understatement, and it reveals the family’s position in society, having the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as its neighbors.  And, Charles thought, “If you took the whole power of Oxford University it might compete with the duke’s.  But not with his wealth.”

When Charles arrives at Dorset’s home, he is led into the private private study, not the public private study where he takes large meetings.  Obviously the duke wants to see Charles on a most pressing and confidential matter.

A painting has been stolen from the wall of the private private study.  Charles sees that there had been eight paintings hanging, but now there are seven.  To his surprise, however, the duke tells him that the missing painting, a portrait of one of his ancestors, is of no particular value and has no sentimental meaning; it is a different painting that still hangs on the wall that is nearly priceless.  That work is the only known portrait of William Shakespeare that was painted from life.  Only three people, including Dorset, are aware of that fact, the other two being Her Royal Highness and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, obviously both not suspected of the theft.

So Charles is commissioned to find the missing artwork under the condition of deepest secrecy.  And if that were not difficult enough, it turns out that the duke has not given Lenox the most important piece of information of all.

In addition to the wonderful characters in this series and the exciting plot, I was fascinated, as I have been in Finch’s previous novels, by the author’s ability to drop tidbits of information about the era throughout the book.  For example, did you know that when dining with the queen, as soon as she puts down her fork all her guests immediately have to do the same; this is as true today as it was in Victoria’s time.  And that every day the royal chefs had to prepare forty-eight servings of curry in case forty-eight unexpected guests of Asian descent called upon Victoria.  And if forty nine dignitaries came unexpectedly?  Apparently one of them would have to eat what the queen ate, since she herself despised curry.

The Vanishing Man is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox series.

You can read more about Charles Finch at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE YARD by Alex Grecian: Book Review

Before we get too nostalgic about the “good old days,” perhaps we should reflect for a moment about Victorian England.  No child labor laws meant that children as young as five worked twelve hour days as chimney sweeps and in coal mines, to name just two perilous fields.  Boys were stuffed up chimneys to sweep out the accumulated coal dust; boys and girls spent their working days in the narrow alleys of pitch black mines, waiting to open and close the doors for the coal-laden trolleys.  And girls as young as ten were “tweenies,” maids in well-to-do households who got up before daybreak to light the fireplaces.  Plus there were the “workhouses,” but the less said about them, the better.

It’s the year 1889 in London, in the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign.  Scotland Yard is trying to recover from the horrific murders committed by the man known as Jack the Ripper.  Morale at the Yard is low, and the public’s opinion of the Yard is even lower.  The new commissioner of police, Sir Edward Bradford, is determined to modernize the force and bring respect back to the institution.

The Yard opens with the discovery of a corpse inside a steamer trunk found in a London railway station. The body is that of Inspector Christian Little, his eyelids and lips sewn shut, and the officers standing by the body are naturally horrified.  The newest detective on the force, Detective Inspector Walter Day, is given the assignment of bringing the killer to justice.  And Dr. Bernard Kingsley, a surgeon who has been giving of his time and knowledge in an effort to bring new forensic practices to Scotland Yard, is joining the effort.

Two lowly constables in the already stretched police force are looking into another crime, one officer reluctantly and one whose background makes the case a personal crusade.  Nevil Hammersmith, remembering only too well his own upbringing as a child laborer, is horrified when he finds a boy’s corpse stuffed inside a chimney in a doctor’s house.  “You must stop thinking of this body as a boy.  This is a laborer….Nobody cares about this body, and it is not our job to take up lost cases,” one of Nevil’s superiors tells him.  But Nevil persists in his efforts to find who left the young boy wedged up the chimney and didn’t care enough to return to get him out before he baked to death.

What struck me most in reading The Yard is how Alex Grecian, a first-time novelist, made each character stand out.  Between the police in the newly formed Murder Squad, the two prostitutes still reeling from the unsolved Jack the Ripper attacks, the forward-thinking doctor and his young daughter who is his assistant, and the force’s official tailor, there are more than a couple of dozen characters to keep track of.  By his skillful writing, the author makes that an easy and pleasurable task.  I found that I cared about or was fascinated by each one of them.  The Yard is a masterful debut.

You can read more about Alex Grecian at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at this web site.