Spooky gas street lamps flickering, impenetrable fog sweeping over the cobblestone streets. The atmosphere of 19th century Victorian England sets an excellent mysterious mood. There is a legacy of mystery surrounding Victorian London, in historical figures like Jack the Ripper, and the long literary shadow cast by Sherlock Holmes.
Historical novels set in Victorian London often appeal as much for the spooky, mysterious mood, as for the setting.
Authors: Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, Celia Rees, Andrew Lane, Y.S. Lee, Eleanor Updale
Death Cloud by Andrew Lane (2011, Square Fish, 336 pages), is the only Sherlock Holmes adaptation approved by the author’s estate. It is very much an adventure as well as a mystery set in a Victorian framework. Some touches of villainy verge on cartoonish mad science. For older teens, grappling with the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and Conan Doyle’s denser language is probably more worthwhile.
Ripper, by Stefan Petrucha (Philomel, 2012,427 pages), is set in New York, not London, but captures the moody Victorian mystery feel beautifully. Carver Young grew up in an orphanage, obsessed with detective novels, and knowing that his own dreams of being a detective were probably hopeless. Until he catches the attention of a detective from the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, who adopts him as an apprentice. Carver has a chance to learn to be a real detective, even as New York is in the grip of a grisly series of serial murders, and to work on unraveling the mystery of his own past. Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance. Sixth grade and up, with the potential to appeal to boys.
The Tea Rose is the promising beginning of a series of books by Jennifer Donnelly, set in London in 1888. Fiona works in a tea factory and is saving to open a tea shop of her own. She’s young and in love, but a sudden dark turn of events forces her to flee London, fearing for her life. She seeks refuge in New York, returning years later to settle a few scores. Suitable for teen readers, probably 8th grade and up. The story continues into the early 20th century with The Winter Rose and the final installment, The Wild Rose. (Interestingly, this may be one of the few YA examples of the “family saga”subgenre Saricks notes as appealing to historical fiction fans.)
The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee: A paper on the genre characteristics and appeal factors of The Agency series by Y.S. Lee, featuring a synopsis of the first book, A Spy in the House.
From the Adult Shelf:
The original Sherlock Holmes mysteries aren’t historical fiction of course, as they were written during the 19th century. For a reader seeking a mystery set against the gaslit and foggy cobbled streets of London, going right to the source could be tremendous fun. Several modern writers have recreated Holmes’ world. I reviewed a few of them on my other blog.
Some Danger Involved, by Will Thomas, is the start of a series about a pair of detectives in Victorian London, where one detective makes brilliant deductive leaps, boxes sometimes, and is not too careful of social niceties and tact. The other, a little less sharp of wit and tongue, is the first person narrator of their adventures. The detectives’ names are not Holmes and Watson, but Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewellyn. Plenty of adventure elements like chases, explosions, violence, and a pace that steadily hurtles forward with constant action will appeal to high school age readers and up. The series might also serve as good training wheels for Conan Doyle.
The Alienist, by Caleb Carr. Set in 19th century New York, not Victorian England, but its mood and plot developments place the novel about a grisly serial killer investigation in this subgenre, rather than that of Gilded Age New York romance. This novel offers both historical detail and the descriptions of the murders in intricate and exacting detail, making it a suitable book for older teens who can handle dense language and a good bit of gore.
Other genre possibilities: As seen above, this historical framework lends itself beautifully to mystery. Steampunk is a genre that takes some of the frame elements and atmospheric elements of the Victorian era, as well as the steam-powered technology available and runs with it, into the realm of science fiction.
Crossing over into horror from a Victorian setting, The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey comes highly recommended by both Jennifer Hubert Swann, and YA Genre Lit classmate Megan Roberts. I have not read these books, as I am far too squeamish, but I know they involve Victorian England, monsters, and terrifying gore. Here is a review from ReadingRants.