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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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Busting Jack the Ripper

I’ve spent a fair bit of the past month reading Bruce Robinson’s book They All Love JackBusting the Ripper. A mammoth work of over 800 pages, filled with great detail and excellent illustrations. I hadn’t read a Jack the Ripper book for several years and was pleased I found this.Product Details

Wind back the clock: A couple of decades ago I spent a great deal of time studying Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. I read all the books, studied quite a lot of primary sources, and walked Whitechapel by day and night visiting the murder scenes. I was never a Ripperologist, but being interested in Victorian crime I felt that I couldn’t miss out these killings.

In the end I got rather fed up with it. I got tired of books appearing every year claiming this candidate or that for Jack, some of them by reputable authors who should have known better.

I also got fed up with writers who tended to treat Jack’s identity as nothing more than an academic puzzle, seemingly forgetting that the puzzle is only there because several women – each one of them a million times better than their murderer – died brutal and unnecessary deaths.

But I was intrigued by the premise of Bruce Robinson’s book, that really there is no mystery at all – except a very carefully manufactured one. Bruce Robinson’s book is like a tornado of fresh air blowing away the rubbish and misconceptions that have clustered around this miserable serial killer for the past 130 years.

I thought I knew a great deal about Jack the Ripper, but I’d forgotten much that Bruce Robinson mentions and there was a lot in this book I never knew.

Mr Robinson picks away at the “mystery” until it is a mystery no more. Along the way – often in very forthright and politically incorrect terms – he tears open the rottenness of Victorian Values, portraying what a corrupt and nasty society it actually was. I’ve spent much of the past 35 years studying Victorian Britain. I write a great deal about it, both fictionally and otherwise. There is much about the everyday Victorians to admire, particularly the poor and those who tried to make the world a better place. But what our politicians of today lovingly and yearningly call Victorian Values deserve no respect at all.

Bruce Robinson exposes the way the Victorian Establishment of 1888 – a nasty bunch I’ve always thought – conspired to send people in totally the wrong direction in the search for the Whitechapel murderer. All to protect one of their own and not caring about any of the innocent people they implicated instead.

He shows how police inquiries were muffled, how vital evidence that could have brought the killer to book was deliberately destroyed. How coroners at inquests suppressed vital proof and broke the law themselves by refusing to call witnesses who might have identified the murderer. He demonstrated that the politicians in the government of the day worked with a bent police force to make sure that the Establishment figure behind the killings gained protection.

It is a deeply angry book and all the better for that. For these poor women victims had already – like so many of the poor – been ripped apart by a greedy and patrician society long before Jack the Ripper got his hand on them.

Could the police and the Establishment really conspire in this way to cover their backs? Yes they could. We have seen elements only too recently in the Hillsborough tragedy and many other such instances how politicians, police and parts of the press will do anything to suppress the truth.

If you only read one book about Victorian crime and society this year make it this one. Bruce Robinson takes the whole case apart with the kind of forensic skill any barrister would envy. His critique of the more miserable elements of the Victorian Establishment is spot on.

Bruce Robinson is a superb writer and a wonderful historian.

A real page-turner of a book.

 

 

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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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