Friday, November 27, 2009

Adventure and Mystery in the Victorian Age


The Victorian Age is the perfect setting for adventure and mystery book series. It’s far enough in the past to be exotic and familiar enough for readers to relate to. It lasted a long time—Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837 to 1901 and she brought her nation through a time of peace, progress, and prosperity. The Victorian British Empire had under its thumb Canada, Australia, areas of Africa and South America, and the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. Victorian celebrities (fictional and real) include the likes of Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, P.T. Barnum, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde, Jane Eyre, Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, Buffalo Bill, and Jack the Ripper. The Victorians believed they were at the pinnacle of civilization, yet electricity, automobiles, and antibiotics were things of the future. Still, there was plenty of drama afoot as long-established standards clashed with new-fangled notions. Gas lamps glimmered through the fog of London’s streets. The rich dined well, rode well, and lived well while poor children worked in the streets as bootblacks and chimney sweeps. Society was slavishly devoted to the strict moral codes the governed the division of the classes and the restricted rights of women, but oh, did they ever love a good scandal! In short, book characters can travel the world, meet a wealth of interesting characters, defy conventions, have adventures, and solve mysteries for years and years, all the while securely under the umbrella of the glorious Victorian Age, an era of horse-drawn carriages, gossip over tea, disdain for foreigners, stiff upper lips, parasols, bustles, top hats, thrilling adventures, and chilling mysteries.

Crocodile On the Sandbank: An Amelia Peabody Mystery, Book One by Elizabeth Peters, 1992, Mysterious Press, originally published 1975 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


If you think the Victorian era was a prim and proper one when delicate ladies stayed quietly at home and fussed with their needlework, you’ve never met the irrepressible, indomitable Amelia Peabody. When near-spinster Amelia (she’s thirty-two) comes into a rather large inheritance, she flings off the mantle of home and hearth and sets out for faraway Egypt. Along the way she meets lovely Evelyn, abandoned by her lover with no means of support. With her typical disregard for convention, Amelia takes Evelyn under her wing and whisks her away up the Nile. Amelia indulges her passion for Egyptology at an archeological site run by the Emerson brothers. Amiable young Walter Emerson is smitten by Evelyn, but hot-tempered Radcliffe is soon butting heads with Amelia at every turn. And soon there’s a kidnapping attempt on Evelyn, a few too-coincidental accidents, and a walking, talking (well, moaning) mummy haunting the dig site. How Amelia solves these many mysteries is only half the fun. The historical details and the exotic setting add their charms, but Amelia herself is the biggest draw to this mystery series. Armed with her unflappable self-confidence, her dry wit, and her trusty umbrella, Amelia is a delightfully loveable Wonder Woman of the Victorian age. Amelia’s circle of family and friends grows over the years and there are always mysteries and murders to solve, but Amelia’s wit remains sharp, her passions always run strong, and her sense of determination never, ever flags.

1.  Crocodile on the Sandbank   
2.  Curse of the Pharaohs   
3.  The Mummy Case       
4.  Lion in the Valley       
5.  The Deeds of the Disturber       
6.  The Last Camel Died at Noon   
7.  The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog   
8.  The Hippopotamus Pool   
9.  Seeing a Large Cat   
10.  The Ape Who Guards the Balance
11.  The Falcon at the Portal   
12.  He Shall Thunder in the Sky
13.  Lord of the Silent
14.  The Golden One
15.  Children of the Storm
16.  Guardian of the Horizon
17.  The Serpent on the Crown
18.  Tomb of the Golden Bird

Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842, Book One by George MacDonald Fraser, 1999, HarperCollins, originally published 1969 (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

Rogue, rake, cad, cur, blackguard, brute—you know all those great old-fashioned words for a jerk that nobody uses anymore? Well, bring them all back for Sir Harry Flashman, the Victorian Era’s most loveable scoundrel. A bawdy, jolly tale that is also great historical fiction, Flashman is a rousing, rollicking introduction to Harry Flashman’s “memoirs” and readers won’t fail to be charmed by Flashman’s candor as he gleefully sets the record straight and confesses all his past indiscretions, fabrications, and outright lies. In his first adventure, Flashman is out for little more than free drinks and fast women. A seduction-gone-wrong saddles him with a one-way ticket to Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Armed Forces. Now Flashy just wants to save his ass, but he keeps getting flung right into the middle of every major historical event of the time, culminating in the last battle of the First Anglo-Afghan War. But Flashman is always the opportunist, making time to hone his skills as a lover, fighter, imposter, coward, and all around fascinating character. Harry Flashman is first heard of in a real Victorian novel—he’s a minor character, a schoolboy bully, in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Over a hundred years later, George MacDonald Fraser resurrected Flashman for a twelve-book series that celebrates the escapades of this dastardly clever antihero in all his glory.

1.  Flashman       
2.  Royal Flash           
3.  Flash for Freedom   
4.  Flashman at the Charge
5.  Flashman in the Great Game   
6.  Flashman’s Lady
7.  Flashman and the Redskins
8.  Flashman and the Dragon
9.  Flashman and the Mountain of Light
10.  Flashman and the Angel of the Lord   
11.  Flashman and the Tiger
12.  Flashman on the March

The Cater Street Hangman: An Inspector Pitt Mystery, Book One by Anne Perry, 2008, Ballantine Books, originally published 1979 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The Ellisons are a well-to-do Victorian family in a proper London neighborhood. Papa Ellison has a stiff upper lip and Mama is the all the right stuff Victorian ladies are made of; daughters Sarah, Emily, and Charlotte have a bit more spunk. Sarah, the eldest, is married to easy-going, easy-on-the-eyes Dominic while youngest sister Emily has her sights set on making a match of the finest quality. For Emily, it’s handsomely rich Lord Ashworth or bust, even if love doesn’t quite enter the picture. Middle sister Charlotte is the black sheep of the family. Her looks don’t compete with those of her fair, delicate sisters (darker hair, eyes, and complexion were decidedly not up to the high standards of Victorian feminine beauty), and she speaks her mind entirely too much and too easily for a young woman of good breeding. But these become minor issues when a series of murders suddenly plagues the Cater Street neighborhood where the Ellisons live. Women are being brutally strangled, and not only is this terrifying news in its own right, but murder is not the sort of event that attracts respectability. The Victorians loved a good scandal—but only, of course, when it happens to other people. Enter Inspector Thomas Pitt, an upstart of the first order who is far too scruffy, demanding, and familiar (especially with hot-tempered Charlotte) to tolorate, even if he is the police officer in charge of the case. But it cannot be denied (especially by Charlotte) that Pitt is intelligent, insightful, and even, given half a chance, sensitive. Romance has little time to flourish here, for the Cater Street Hangman is at large and the lives of the neighborhood’s fine young ladies—including the Ellison sisters—are very much in danger. Mystery writer Anne Perry pens a serious, atmospheric mystery that is rooted in historical details of London circa 1881, foggy nights and narrow alleys not to be excluded. Perry’s characters (most notably Inspector Pitt, plus a few select members of the Ellison family, not to give too much away) challenge the Victorian notions of class and gender which, of course, inspires the drama, action, and suspense that makes this Victorian mystery series one of the longest running and best loved of its kind.

1.  The Cater Street Hangman        
2.  Callander Square           
3.  Paragon Walk           
4.  Resurrection Row           
5.  Rutland Place           
6.  Bluegate Fields           
7.  Death in the Devil's Acre      
8.  Cardington Crescent       
9.  Silence in Hanover Close        
10.  Bethlehem Road           
11.  Highgate Rise           
12.  Belgrave Square       
13.  Farriers’ Lane 
14.  The Hyde Park Headsman
15.  Traitor’s Gate
16.  Pentecost Alley  
17.  Ashworth Hall 
18.  Brunswick Hall
19.  Bedford Square
20.  Half Moon Street 
21.  The Whitechapel Conspiracy
22.  Southhampton Row 
23.  Seven Dials
24.  Long Spoon Lane
25.  Buckingham Palace Garden

A Beautiful Blue Death: A Charles Lenox Mystery, Book One by Charles Finch, 2007, St. Martin’s Minotaur Press (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


Charles Lenox is a gentleman of the highest class. Aristocratic birth and old money allow him to live a life of leisure in one of London’s best neighborhoods. For Lenox, leisure means sipping tea in front of a cozy fire, studying Roman antiquities, and—and this is what separates our Charles Lenox from the other rich but dull members of high society—solving mysteries. Lenox is an amateur detective; his wealth allows him to take pleasure in solving the crime rather than in getting paid to do so. He attracts people from the poor lower classes and, because of his status as a gentleman, the aristocracy trusts him to solve their mysteries as well. So when Lenox’s neighbor and close friend Lady Jane Grey learns that her former maid has committed suicide, she asks Lenox to investigate. The maid, Prue Smith, was poisoned, and Lenox quickly deduces that it’s murder. The poison is rare, Prue’s master George Barnard is the Director of the Royal Mint, and there’s a house full of guests who make excellent suspects. It’s a worthy mystery, but its first-time author Charles Finch’s finely-drawn portrait of the life and times of Lenox that will keep readers turning the pages. Lenox is a sleuth of the finest order and Finch gifts him with a complex character and a fully realized history. Lenox has a couple of unconventional relationships in an age where rigid class and gender roles keep gentlefolk separate from their servants and men separate from women that add complexity and charm to the already engaging story, one a sincere friendship with his butler Graham and the other a cozy camaraderie with Lady Jane. With precise writing and Victorian atmosphere a-plenty, this is a true-blue mystery series in the making. An Agatha Award nominee in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Beautiful Blue Death is a quality whodunit to be savored slowly, preferably in front of a roaring fire with a hot cup of tea.

1.  A Beautiful Blue Death
2.  The September Society
3.  The Fleet Street Murders

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery, Book One by Philip Pullman, 2008, Knopf Books, originally published 1985 (Teen Fiction/ Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


On a cold afternoon in 1872, sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart walks into her deceased father’s London office. By the time she walks out again, young Sally is deep in a compelling mystery fraught with murder, betrayal, deception, cursed jewels, secrets from the distant past, and a whole crew of Victorian scalawags and villains. There’s more to her father’s death than meets the eye. A horrifyingly creepy old woman is out for Sally’s blood. A mysterious message warns Sally of something called the Seven Blessings. Danger lurks around every corner and Sally herself is the key to unlocking all the intertwining mysteries that threaten her very life. But Sally is nothing if not resourceful, and with a few colorful friends of her own (including Frederick Garland, a charming young photographer), our intrepid heroine sets out to right wrongs and uncover truths. Like many Victorian creations of modern authors, Sally is a very determined young woman with no intention of bowing to the conventions of her day. But Sally is also very much alone in the world, and what she really needs is a few kindred spirits who understand and appreciate her unique qualities. The reader, needless to say, becomes Sally’s ally right away. Author Philip Pullman, best known for the intricate fantasy worlds of His Dark Materials trilogy, knows full well how to create a hero who his readers will follow through thick and thin; he also knows the subtle and masterful art of spinning a good old-fashioned rip-roaring adventure story. As the series continues (and its been made into a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries too), Sally continues to build a new life for herself—and solves a whole mess of thrilling, chilling, bump-in-the-night mysteries while she’s at it.

1.  The Ruby in the Smoke       
2.  The Shadow in the North
3.  The Tiger in the Well       
4.  The Tin Princess

A Great and Terrible Beauty: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Book One by Libba Bray, 2002, Delacorte Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Mystery)

When A Great and Terrible Beauty opens, Gemma Doyle is an unruly, bratty teenager throwing a bit of a tantrum—not quite the proper Victorian lady we’d expect. Gemma has grown up in India and even though the country is firmly under the Empire’s thumb, she longs to experience England. Her mother forbids this, but Gemma is about to get her wish. Walking in the marketplace, Gemma is overcome by a vision that foretells her mother’s death—a vision that comes suddenly and violently true. Guilt-ridden and bereft, Gemma is sent to Spence Academy, a boarding school in fashionable London. And not only is she snubbed by the beautiful, popular girls and her dumpy roommate alike, but mystery has followed her as well. An unknown young man from India spies on her and even more bewildering, the visions haven’t stopped. Despite her grief, Gemma is not one to shirk adventure. She knows she’s on the verge of a great discovery, especially after she finds an old diary that hints at a mystical society called The Order. Gemma makes an uneasy alliance with the most influential Spence girls and together these young ladies begin to explore the sort of power and mystery that is normally forbidden to the standard meek Victorian woman. And once Gemma and her fellows have tasted that power, they’re determined never to go back to the life of mild gentility they’ve being trained to accept. Fans of supernatural romance like the ever-popular Twilight Saga will be drawn to Gemma and to the otherworldy flavor of her adventure. Equal parts mystery, horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, with a dash of forbidden romance thrown in, this trilogy from author Libba Bray is a decidedly original take on the Victorian Age.

1.  A Great and Terrible Beauty
2.  Rebel Angels
3.  The Sweet Far Thing 

Soulless: The Parasol Protectorate, Book One by Gail Carriger, 2009, Orbit Press (Mystery/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction)


Almost everything about Alexia Tarabotti goes against the grain of Victorian society. Her deceased father was Italian (dreaded foreigner). Her looks are swarthy, full figured, and big nosed (not a delicate English rose). Unattached at age twenty-six, she’s considered unmarriageable (spinster). Plus, she’s soulless. She still has a personality and feelings and all that, she’s just lacking a soul. This is very rare and a carefully kept secret in Alexia’s day and age, even though in this alternate history Victorian England has fully accepted the society of vampires and werewolves. Vampires live in hives and werewolves live in packs; members of both supernatural groups hold high positions in the government and in the aristocracy. So when Alexia comes across a vampire at a ball one evening, she’s not at all surprised. She is quite taken aback, however, when the vampire launches himself at her, fangs drawn, without so much as a formal introduction. Alexia defends herself with her handy parasol and ends up an accidental murderess. When Bureau of Unnatural Registry official/ Alpha werewolf Lord Conall Maccon shows up to investigate, Alexia is launched into a world of mystery and intrigue that involves newly made vampires, vanishing werewolves, preternatural powers caused by her own soulless state, and a relationship with Lord Maccon that blossoms--when the two aren’t bickering. Alexia is a delightfully fresh and funny character, wielding her parasol, sleuthing in a not-so-subtle manner, and ready to defy convention at every turn--especially if convention gets in the way of a platter of treacle tarts. Author Gail Carriger has a fine sense of humor and creates a witty parody that takes the genres of fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, screwball comedy, and steampunk, shakes them up, and stands them on their head in an entirely original fashion.

1.  Soulless
2.  Changeless (due April 2010) 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One by Alan Moore, 2002, DC Comics (Comics/ Fantasy/ Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Victorian Age saw the creation of some of the most famous characters in Western literature: Captain Nemo, usually found in his mythical ship Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Allan Quartermain, the adventurer who discovered King Solomon’s Mines; Mina Murray, the heroine who barely escaped from Dracula; Hawley Griffin, the original Invisible Man himself; Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, better known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Comics genius Alan Moore collects them all here and turns them into team of superheroes who use their unique capabilities, powers, and experiences to save England from the clutches of a mysterious madman. The year is 1898, and the heroes have been gathered together in London from all corners of the globe by the head of the Secret Service. They’re a rough-and-tumble bunch, flawed and washed-up, but when a criminal mastermind threatens to firebomb London’s East End and bring down the British Empire, these 19th century characters come to life and rally to the rescue. The illustrations are as bright and action-packed as anything out of the adventures of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or Moore’s own comic masterpiece The Watchmen. Originally published as individual comic book issues and then collected into two volumes, Moore and his fellow creators (Kevin O'Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw, and Bill Oakley) wrote two additional adventures, The Black Dossier and Century 1910. Together, the series is as chock-full of superhero-style action, danger, gore, and derring-do as it is of historical detail, literary references, and Victorian flair. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is another genre-buster that proves just how much mystery and adventure can be packed into one fantastic era.

1.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One
2.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume Two
3.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:  The Black Dossier
4.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:  Century 1910

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