Tag Archives: #londonfiction

‘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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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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