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.

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