April 10, 2004

A Metropolitan Murder

A Metropolitan Murder
Lee Jackson
( heinemann, 2004)

Told in the present tense, this is a novel about a murder on the Metropolitan railway, the first underground railway in the world. A while back a friend did a checklist of 35 things you must including if writing a piece of Victoriana. I have marked in bold all the ones this novel ticks:
1. Whores.
2. Fenians.
3. Urchins.
4. Social deprivation.
5. Incompetent policemen.
6. Brutal murders on the darkened streets of the capital.
7. Cockney cut-throats who don't care about anything except money.
8. Comment on sexual inequality.
9. Comment on class division.

10. Comment on British imperialism.
11. Scene set in a music-hall.
12. Scene set on a period railway station.
13. At least one evil right-wing wife-beating aristocrat. (this has an evil left-wing middle-class type instead)
14. At least one handlebar moustache, often attached to evil right-wing wife-beating aristocrat.
15. At least one fascinating-but-true fact about Victorian life not previously used by a work of fiction set in the era.
16. At least one in-joke referring to another work of fiction set in the era. (can it be coincidence that the body is discovered at Baker Street station?)
17. Cameo appearance from man in deerstalker hat who's clearly not Sherlock Holmes. (see above)
18. Cameo appearance from random character who just happens to be called Moriarty.
19. Cameo appearance from well-known eighteenth-century artist/ writer/ inventor.
20. Closet homosexuality.
21. Bodies in the Thames. (actually, this one is undercut but the expectation is there)
22. Fog.
23. Various derogatory terms for "Jew" no longer in common usage.
24. A pocket watch, probably stolen and possibly inscribed with the initials of a murder victim.
25. Attempted rape or kidnapping of heroine by burly East-End thugs (if rape, then bound to be interrupted by policeman's whistle).
26. Someone who's spent time in Africa.
27. Someone who shoots tigers.
28. Good-natured but subserviant maid who can supply important information.
29. Drunken Irish navvies.

30. One brief reference to the current Prime Minister, in order to ground the story in actual historical events.
31. Several people modelled on British character actors
32. The line 'Queen Victoria, Gawd bless 'er'.
33. Gin.
34. Slang.
35. More whores.
I'm never convinced about present tense in crime fiction. The idea, one suspects, is to increase the tension but for me it does little because I am always immediately aware of it as a device. This novel also seems uncertain about narration, with multiple characters getting their moment of third person glory. I actually felt this distracted from the notion of the novel as a crime thriller. The reader is given too much infomation whilst at the same time the lack of focus allows the tension to drift away: it's very hard to care about any of these characters as none are given enough time to become emotionally engaging.

In terms of the use of the tube (hello, Annie!) it is enjoyable although I thought the first tube lines were cut and cover whilst this seems to suggest the first extension of the Metropolitan was dug out as if by miners*. It's possible they had already started using the shield method by then but I'd need to check. However, the description of the passengers and their behaviour will strike a cord with anyone familiar with the rules of tube travel. And the fact that, even in its first year of operation, the underground was subject to delays, poor lighting and cancellations raises a chuckle.

*tangently madly: in a flashback episode of Buffy with a caption "London, 1865", Dru has a vision of a 'cave in' down the 'mine' which causes much hilarity to British fans. I've long argued that she meant the tube, since there were collapses whilst the Metropolitan was being built in...1864/5.

Half Life

Half Life
Mark Michalowski
(BBC Books, 2004)

wicked Mr Michalowski, distracting me from my writing with a lovely EDA. The first I've read in one sitting since...erm...the last Lloyd Rose, I think.

April 06, 2004

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid
Anchee Min
( bloomsbury , 2004 )

This is a fictionalised biography of Tze-Hsi, the Dragon Empress who ruled China through her son from the 1860s until 1902 (IIRC). She is a remarkable parallel to Queen Victoria, the contemporary Empress of India, and was, in real life, fascinated by the British woman who could rule in front of the screens.
I've read this for work purposes: it comforms to many of the genre rules of 'Chinese female semi-fictional autobiography' writing (for example, Wild Swans, Women of China etc etc) in that it is first person, it emphasises the subservience expected and yet has a feisty heroine who overcomes adversity. Tze-Hsi is a figure who was demonised in the West for many years, and this sets out to reclaim her. Yet it stops at the precise moment in which she becomes the Dragon Empress, as if aware that some of Orchid's well-documented decisions and policies of her later reign, especially her response to the 1898 reform and the 1900 Boxer War, are difficult to shed favourable light on.

I enjoyed the novel but for a more complex portrait of Tze-Hsi I would recommend Marina Warner's biography instead (especially the revised edition).

April 01, 2004

The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time
Jospehine Tey
(Penguin, 1981 edition of 1951 story)

I had, as I suspected, read this before. Tey specialises in historical crime novels in which the past is uncovered layer by layer (there was a lovely one she did about son coming back from the dead - Brat Farrar - which is allegedly being filmed with Brad Pitt in the lead). In The Daughter of Time, a police detective laid up in hospital sets out to find out whether Richard III did kill the Princes in the Tower. This is historical research, the process of it, laid out in the forensic police procedural style and a light easy read. There is even a nod to the parallel between criminology and writing, in that a character within the novel plans to write a book about the process of the policeman discovering the past from his hospital bed.


  • Archangel
    Robert Harris
    (arrow, 1998)
    F | crime
    added to pile: 1st April 2004
    read: 6th April 2004
    the usual Harris with some great touches (such as the descriptions of what they find in the woods) and ideas about the past, about the act of historical research etc. Shame that it's been incorrectly printed, with a sudden dollop of 20 pages repeated and a key event entirely missing.

When in Rome

When in Rome
Ngaio Marsh
(Fontane, 1970)
A Roderick Alleyn mystery. Although the use of the layers of archaeology as a central conceit is well drawn, this isn't Marsh really on form I feel. Possibly this is because I was unable to care about the romantic leads: a writer who works in longhand and manages to lose his manuscript and a girl from a fiction department having a startlingly long holiday. There are some good descriptions and arresting metaphors but otherwise....meh.

Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus
Angela Carter
(picador, 1984)

A delight from start to finish, from the gaslit theatres and whorehouses to the Siberean wastes. There are tangents and sub-stories, tall tales and flights of fancy. And this is a very womanly novel. I am deeply, deeply envious of her skill.

And thanks to Annie for recommending I read it.