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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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“Jekyll, Alias Hyde” by Donald Thomas

Donald Thomas’s novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde, is described on its title page as “A Variation”. And so it is, in every sense of the world. Donald Thomas re-imagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from the point of view of the police detective investigating the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, slain by Hyde in Stevenson’s original.

The police officer is Inspector Alfred Swain, who features in several other novels by the same author. He is assisted by the argumentative Sergeant Lumley, and supervised by Superintendant Toplady. The dynamic between the three is quite wonderful, often combative, and occasionally very funny – the passages where the three inter-react would make the book worth reading even if there was no other plot.

For readers who are unfamiliar with Donald Thomas’s non-fiction I’ll just mention that Thomas is a very noted biographer and historian. His account of The Victorian Underworld, has achieved classic status. Thomas knows all there is to know about Victorian crime and society. It shows here, as he presents a Victorian scene you can almost climb into.

In this re-imagining of the original story, Thomas’ detective is already involved in the story before the murder, as he is on familiar terms with the solicitor Utterson, who is Dr Jekyll’s solicitor. Swain also has an infatuation for Utterson’s daughter.

And through this connection we enter the strange world of Dr Jekyll and, eventually, Mr Hyde. Much of Victorian London is portrayed with stunning accuracy, from the miserable slums to the fashionable salons of the West End. And just what is the mysterious connection with the Zulu Wars?

This is, first and foremost, a crime novel. The victim, as in Stevenson’s original, is the politician Sir Danvers Carew. Stevenson never quite explains just why Carew is murdered. But Donald Thomas does, in a particularly convincing plotline. But who else knew why such an apparently harmless man was killed? And how reliable is the only witness?

And just who is Edward Hyde? We think we know, especially if we’re familiar with the original story, but can we be sure?

I don’t ever give spoilers, for this is a book you should seek out for yourself.

Sufficient to say, that Donald Thomas plunges us into a very familiar tale and then turns our expectations upside down with his “Variation”. This very skilful author has written a literary detective story that is first-rate.

For editions just click on the link below…

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