Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Victorian Underworld

A little while ago, I blogged about Kellow Chesney’s classic book The Victorian Underworld, one of the best and most readable introductions to the subject for the general reader.

Donald Thomas’s book has the same title and covers some of the same ground, but it’s well worth a read as well. Reading both books will give you a good working knowledge of the subject and suggest avenues of research you might care to follow.

Mr Thomas is well known as an academic, an historian and biographer, and as a writer of crime fiction – I reviewed his novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde recently. He has also written a detective series and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Victorian Underworld, was first published in 1998 and was shortlisted for a CWA Golden Dagger.

Thomas begins with a prologue entitled “Darkest England,” setting the scene for the Victorian townscapes and countryside where the underworld thrived.

Mr Thomas pulls no punches in exposing of the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain. Sheer poverty drove people towards crime because of the basic need to survive.

On a personal note, I must say I get a little weary of present-day politicians preaching the merits of Victorian values,  and yearning to recreate such a world. Victorian Britain must have been an interesting place to live if you were very wealthy – but for the vast majority, it was a long struggle often just to put bread on the table.

As Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, “poverty is the main cause of crime and revolution.” The Victorian Establishment suppressed – often with considerable brutality – most attempts to even up the odds.

The Underworld of the Age was an inevitable reaction to a Victorian lack of decency and fairness. Although there was a great deal of casual crime, there was also a considerable amount of criminal organisation. Mr Thomas looks at both in great detail.

Here we have the thieves, the swell mob and the pornographers, the way justice was loaded against the poor and there’s a lengthy examination of corruption at the heart of the Establishment and, in particular, at Scotland Yard.

There is a very good chapter on the stealing of the Crimean gold from a moving train, fictionalised in a book and a film by Michael Crichton as The First Great Train Robbery. The reality of the crime is much more sensational than any work of fiction.

Mr Thomas deals well with the subject of Victorian sexuality – there were, after all, tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets of London.

He devotes a chapter to the mysterious memoirist called Walter, whose voluminous My Secret Life, gives some vivid pen-sketches by a man who was a customer of these women. There’s also a look at W.T Stead’s exposure of child prostitution and a glance at Victorian homosexuality.

Mr Thomas’s book was first published a few years after I first studied the Victorian Underworld as an undergraduate, doing a minor in Victorian social history at the University of East Anglia.

I seem to recall that, apart from the Kellow Chesney book, I was obliged to seek out primary sources – and so one should. But for the general reader without a great deal of time, these two books by Mr Chesney and Mr Thomas, offer a very readable and fascinating introduction.

My interest in the history of the Victorian Underworld has never wavered. I’ve read a lot more since graduation and tried to portray this world as accurately as possible in my own novels The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.

 

 

 

 

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The IPCRESS File – Film review

One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).The Ipcress File [DVD]

Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.

Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.

Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.

Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.

The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.

The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.

The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.

Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.

Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.

Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.

Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.

The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.

One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.

Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.

Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.

Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.

What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.

The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.

I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.

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The Murder in Romney Marsh by Edgar Jepson

Edgar Jepson (1863-1938) was a popular detective novelist of the Golden Age. He translated Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories and also wrote supernatural tales. Jepson was the grandfather of novelist and scriptwriter, Fay Weldon. The Murder in Romney Marsh (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Jepson, Edgar]

The Murder in Romney Marsh was first published in 1929. The chapters have cryptic titles, a popular device at the time. A businessman named Robert Garfield has been murdered in the village of St Joseph on Romney Marsh. Garfield lived in London and used his country home, Applecross Farm, as a shooting-box. James Carthew, a young inspector is sent from Scotland Yard to assist the local police, who are -in time-honoured fashion – baffled.

Inspector Carthew has a jaunty air about him. He’s been waiting for a chance to prove himself and feels this case may be it. At first, he passes himself off as a young gentleman who wished to amuse himself on a holiday. When he first examines the murder scene, he pretends he’s out rough shooting, looking for spent cartridges.

I stuck my eyeglass in my eye – nothing gives a man an air of greater simplicity than an eyeglass properly used. Has he been reading Dorothy L. Sayers?

Superintendent Goad, Carthew’s boss dislikes him because:

He preferred men of his own kind, men who had put in from seven to twelve years as ordinary police constables before they passed into C.I.D., whereas, after being demobilized and spending my gratuity, I had only spent two years as an ordinary constable before I passed into it. Also he did not like in me what I once heard a business man call ‘The Public School Taint’ in me.

Inspector Carthew has a conceited manner, full of confidence, though he is astute. He doesn’t want to share his findings with Collins, the local policeman. He’s a bit of a user and very keen to get full credit at the Yard for his work.

He narrates the story in first person, not the most common choice for detective novels. It gives an immediacy as the reader knows all his thoughts on deduction but we lose a more rounded view of what’s happening. The structure has to stay completely linear. I noticed how everything goes Carthew’s way. From the moment he arrives on the Marsh, he finds one clue leads to another. The jigsaw fits in place without setbacks.

Carthew is an interesting character. For a Scotland Yard inspector, he isn’t wholly moral. Once he falls for a suspect, he’s prepared to bend the rules, holding back facts from Collins and obliquely steering the lady out of trouble. We’re left to wonder whether Superintendent Goad dislikes Carthew for being ‘cocky’ and not one of the lads. He’d never stand for rule-bending so he can’t know about that.

Or is Goad prejudiced about a personable young chap with an old school tie and fast promotion? For there’s something likable about Carthew and he is on the side of justice – if not the letter of the law. Jepson’s characterisation makes Inspector Carthew very believable and way above a stock detective.

All the village characters are well-drawn, although a couple of foreign villains with exaggerated accents seemed strangely familiar. There are some interesting glimpses of class attitudes of the time. The local vicar is an old comrade of Carthew’s from the War. Here he discusses the vicar’s step-daughters who are hard up, have nothing useful to do and rarely meet anyone new:

Wouldn’t it be better for them to get a job – shorthand and typewriting or something of that kind?

No, such jobs lead to nothing. And then it would mean their living alone in a big town and long hours and poor pay and associating with people of a lower class.

The novel has a convincing atmosphere of Romney Marsh – in Kent, on the border with Sussex. There are some lovely descriptions of the haunting, flat landscape with its autumn mists seeping over the sea wall, plank-bridged dykes, warm-tiled cottages and fine, ancient churches. The Marsh is sheep country and its shepherds are known as lookers. A sinister name, harking back to the area’s smuggling history. This is a fascinating area, for ever associated with Russell Thorndike’s wonderful Doctor Syn stories.

There’s much to enjoy in The Murder in Romney Marsh, especially if you want to get a feel for what rural England was like between the wars. This is a good, escapist, detective yarn. A typical example of the kind so popular with readers trying to forget the horrors of the Great War and blot out the shadow of the war to come. It isn’t too hard to get the murderer though the conclusion is very well-reasoned and the outcome for Inspector Carthew is surprising. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Holy Disorders’ by Edmund Crispin

Holy Disorders, published in 1946, is the second Gervase Fen mystery by Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), writing under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Montgomery is considered to be one of the last of the great Golden Age novelists. He was much admired by his friend Agatha Christie.Holy Disorders (A Gervase Fen Mystery) by [Crispin, Edmund]

Edmund Crispin stands out among his peers for the sparkling humour he brought to his work. His amateur sleuth Gervase Fen – a Professor of English at Oxford – was partly based on Montgomery’s Oxford tutor, W.G. Moore. Fen is eccentric, mercurial, by turns charming or pithy. At one point, Fen spends some time running through suspects’ alibis with his friend, Geoffrey Vintner.

‘Do you get it?’ He asked.
‘No’, said Geoffrey.
‘Nincompoop,’ said Fen.

Fen has the wit of Peter Wimsey, the facetiousness of Rory Alleyn and the capacity for getting in a mess of Bertie Wooster. He takes up enthusiasms rather like Toad from The Wind in the Willows and he frequently quotes the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Gervase Fen is as idiosyncratic as Sherlock Holmes, as brilliant a detective and just as lovable to the reader.

Holy Disorders is set in the hot summer of 1940 with the Battle of Britain dominating the headlines. Beginning in London, we follow Geoffrey Vintner, a confirmed bachelor, organist and composer, on an eventful journey down to the Devon cathedral town of Tolnbridge. He’s perhaps something of a self-portrait as Bruce Montgomery was a bachelor for most of his life and a composer of church music. (He was also well-known for his film scores, composing the music for several Carry On comedies).

Vintner is summoned by Fen to be a temporary replacement for the cathedral organist, who’s been attacked and put out of action. Along with this breakfast telegram, Vintner receives an anonymous letter, warning him not to go to Tolnbridge.

He felt as unhappy as any man without pretension to the spirit of adventure might feel who has received a threatening letter, accompanied by sufficient evidence to suggest that the threats contained in it will probably be carried out.

Before leaving London, Vintner is waylaid while purchasing a butterfly net for Fen – insects of several kinds play a significant part in the novel. His journey manages to be both farcical and menacing. He’s saved from attack by Henry Fielding, a young man who is heir to an earldom and straight out of Wodehouse. He’s looking for adventure and inveigles himself into this one, accompanying Vintner to Tolnbridge. Fielding explains why he hasn’t joined up:

They won’t have me. I volunteered last November but they graded me four, I joined the ARP, of course and I’m thinking of going in for this new LDV racket.
Nothing wrong with me except shaky eyesight…I want to do something active about this war – something romantic. I tried to join the Secret Service but it was no good.

Crispin was an extremely accomplished writer, a real all-rounder. His sense of atmosphere is beautifully written. Settings such as Paddington Station and the journey by steam train, summer evenings in the gardens of Tolnbridge and its surrounding countryside are lyrically described. The author settled in South Devon and was obviously thinking of that coast’s estuaries when he described Tolnbridge. Its topography bears some resemblance to Exeter at the head of the Exe estuary, though only partial. Too much is imagined to be a thinly-disguised version.

When Vintner arrives in Tolnbridge, there’s an M.R. Jamesian feel to the narrative. His hostess at the clergy-house explains that the organist has been rendered insane:

An empty cathedral isn’t a good place to be in all night– even for the unimaginative.

Athough Holy Disorders has a lively, humorous tone, there’s constantly a much darker atmosphere lurking beneath. It reminds me of the way Agatha Christie creates a sense of evil in many of her plots. I wonder if this is a trick they ever discussed? Beneath the larky fun – the feeling that P.G Wodehouse has tried his hand at a murder mystery set in a Trollopian Cathedral Close – there’s an undercurrent of cruelty and malice.

Along the way the narrative is a delight, in places laugh-out-loud funny. Gervase Fen doesn’t appear for seventy-odd pages. His entrance is built up, pantomine fashion, the reader constantly hearing about his latest exploits and reading his messages. When he does burst in, he soon breaks the famous fourth wall, stepping out of the action a moment to address the readers, as though we’re in on the joke. Rarely seen at the time, though Leslie Charteris does this engagingly in his Simon Templar stories.

The novel is full of word-play and literary allusions in a way that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. You feel that Edmund Crispin was having fun as he wrote, treating his readers as intellectual equals and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Another instance of Crispin having fun and breaking the rules is when he describes the reading matter lying about the clergy-house – John Dickson Carr (whom he admired), Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell.

He also has the local inspector say:

The Chief Constable got on to the Yard. I believe they were going to send down one of their best men – fellow called Appleby.

Much to Fen’s indignation. (Sir John Appleby, Michael Innes’s famous detective). Fen, being competitive, determines to solve the case before the Yard – that well-known trope – with all the enthusiasm Morse might show for a free pint of real ale and a fiendish cryptic crossword.

Holy Disorders is hard to describe or categorise. A glorious romp, an adventure yarn, a Golden Age thriller, it’s also an intriguing whodunit with a final gathering and a chilling ‘reveal’ worthy of Poirot.

That probably sounds like too much in the pot but trust me, you’re in the hands of a master. Edmund Crispin’s mysteries are a dazzling treat, as fresh and enjoyable now as the day they were first published.

  

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‘A True and Faithful Brother’ by Linda Stratmann

I always like Linda Stratmann’s Victorian-set Frances Doughty Mysteries and very much enjoyed her latest novel, A True and Faithful Brother, published in 2017.A True and Faithful Brother: A Frances Doughty Mystery (The Frances Doughty Mysteries) by [Stratmann, Linda]

They’re excellent murder mysteries enjoyed at random, though – as in most detective series – readers will gain a greater understanding of Frances and her world if they’re taken in order. A True and Faithful Brother provides answers to an intriguing sub-plot which begins with the first entry in the series, The Poisonous Seed, published in 2011. It’s been a long wait but all the better for it.

The series is based in the West London district of Bayswater in the early 1880s. An interesting, fresh choice of setting and an area of London I haven’t seen used in other Victorian-set detective novels. Bayswater is described as a small town-like community within the capital. Linda Stratmann’s impeccable research gives a vividly authentic sense of what the area would have been like at that time.

By the late Victorian age, many of the defining features of twentieth century Bayswater were in place, including the shops of prosperous Westbourne Grove and William Whiteley’s famous, ever-expanding department store. Real buildings and personalities are often mentioned – such as the local coroner – and there’s always an interesting author’s note on the historical background.

A True and Faithful Brother gets off to a flying start with a twist on the classic locked-room mystery. A retired businessman and philanthropist has vanished from a darkened room during a Freemason’s Lodge meeting. The exits were locked, bolted and guarded, leaving a perplexing puzzle.

Miss Frances Doughty, a young lady detective, is asked by a former client to investigate and find the missing man. Frances is a very likable character, intelligent, determined and lives up to her name. At this stage in the seventh book in the series, she’s well-known to the Bayswater community, local police and press as a successful private detective.

However, events in her last case – detailed in Death In Bayswater – have caused her to lose her confidence somewhat. As the novel opens, she’s decided to give up criminal work and stick to servant problems, long-lost relatives, missing pets and other safe domestic cases. When a body is discovered, Frances has a very personal reason for once again getting involved with a case of murder.

Series’ readers come to know an endearing bunch of recurring characters, led by Sarah, Frances’s loyal assistant and companion. I like the local police inspector and the network of enterprising errand boys who act as Frances’s ‘eyes and ears,’ rather like the Baker Street irregulars.

A theme runs throughout the novels, of the difficulties faced by single women making their way in later Victorian society. Frances, young, with little security, is striving be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. She and Sarah are surviving on hard work and initiative in a society where many think their profession is unsuitable for women.

We learn a lot about the changing times. Frances and Sarah support the emerging women’s suffrage movement and take exercise classes with self-defence in mind. Linda Stratmann describes this fascinating background in a light, engaging style, weaving seamlessly with the murder plot.

The narrative is gripping and Frances has to face great danger – of more than one kind – before a satisfying conclusion. The Frances Doughty Mysteries are a very enjoyable blend of Victorian setting, rich in authentic detail with intelligent, complex plots, well-rounded characters and a most engaging heroine. I look forward to her next adventure.

 

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