Category Archives: Victoriana

Sherlock Holmes, from the Adult Shelf

The House of Silk– Anthony Horowitz.  (Hachette, 2011, 295 pages.) Spooky atmosphere and satisfyingly suspenseful plot twists would make this a good Victorian mystery, even if Sherlock and Watson were not at the center of it all. Weaving together two seemingly disconnected cases, and hinting at a much larger conspiracy, Horowitz tells an exciting and engrossing tale. The best part about this, though, is how well he captures Doyle’s Victorian prose style and language, and the characterizations of Holmes and Watson.

The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, by Caleb Carr. (Carroll & Graf, 2005,256 pages.)  No surprise that the author of The Alienist has a terrific ear for recreating Conan Doyle’s language, while telling a story that could fit into Doyle’s world. Ghostly, Gothic touches and a very nice haunted mansion idea.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. (Harper Collins 2004, 175 pages.) Here, Holmes is an older gentleman, but still as sharp as ever. He meets Linus, a young boy who is a Jewish refugee, staying with the neighbors. Linus’s parrot has a fondness for rattling off number sequences in German. When the parrot goes missing, and one of the neighbor’s boarders is found murders, Holmes agrees to come out of retirement. There’s something nostalgic and sweet about this story. Whether it’s the way Holmes gruffly befriends the young boy, or the inclusion of the parrot, it’s a gentler atmosphere than most Holmes-inspired tales.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, by Larry Millett (Penguin, 1999, 336 pages). It took a while to get used to the idea of Sherlock Holmes visiting America, or in the sparse, somewhat frontier setting of Minnesota. I picked this up at the library by chance. (And had the entirely unworthy thought of comparing it to the Book of Mormon, in that it took literary figures far from their accepted setting, to construct a wholly new mythology.) The mystery and characterization grabbed me, though. I had no idea there were others in Millett’s series. I might read them.

The Art of Detection- Laurie R. King (Bantam, 2007 459 pages). Detective Kate Martinelli investigates a murder within a community of Sherlock Holmes-obsessed enthusiasts. I wish Laurie R. King would write more Kate Martinelli books. I know she’s done extensive volumes of her own Holmes adaptation, starring Mary Russell, but I find the idea of Married!Holmes decidedly creepy. It verges on fanfiction.

Sherlock and Watson, image from the BBC.

And then of course, there’s the BBC Sherlock, bringing Sherlock and Watson into the 21st century, with text messages, riffs on classic cases, and of course Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. They’re so good, it’s hard not to picture those actors when I’m reading anything Holmes


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Spotlight on: Victorian England

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

Book Recommendations

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: A Spy in the House, image from GoodReadsThe 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 cover from GoodReadsSome 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.

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The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee

The following is a paper written for class, about a YA series, its genre characteristics, appeal factors, and potential use in readers’ advisory.

Cover art for the Agency taken from GoodReadsThere are three books in The Agency series. The first book, A Spy in the House (Candlewick, 2010, 352 pages), tells the story of Mary Lang in London, in 1853. Mary is a twelve-year-old girl who is about to be hanged for breaking and entering a house. Instead, she is rescued and given what feels like a miraculous second chance. Renamed Mary Quinn, she is brought to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, where she is given a home and an education.

The story picks up again three years later, when Mary is working at the Academy, teaching younger girls. Although she knows that the opportunity she’s been given to be an educated woman is unique and wonderful, Mary has become restless. She approaches her teachers for guidance, and discovers that Academy works in partnership with the Agency, a network of female spies. The social structures of Victorian London mean that a young woman in domestic service will largely be ignored, allowing her to hear sensitive and useful information.

Mary’s first assignment is to pose as a wealthy young lady’s companion, in the household of the Thorold family in London. The Agency wants to gather preliminary information about Mr. Thorold’s shipping business and financial dealings, before a more seasoned agent comes to take Mary’s place. Although Mary is assigned to observe passively and maintain her role as a lady’s companion and maid, she struggles with her impatience on a number of levels. Mr. Thorold and his secretary, Michael Gray discuss business at home, so Mary can’t pick up needed tidbits by listening in the drawing room or eavesdropping. Angelica is spoiled and resentful of having Mary as an assigned companion, and does nasty little things to Mary, like digging her fingernails into a burn on Mary’s hand. Angelica is engaged to be married to George Easton, a marriage more about a business alliance between the Thorold family and the Easton family. And Mrs. Thorold is sickly, only leaving the house to visit her doctors, which is unique for a woman of her class, but dismissed as a wealthy hypochondriac’s affectation.

Bored and impatient, Mary does some sleuthing of her own in Thorold’s study.  The mysterious gentleman who catches her, while also snooping there, turns out to be James Easton, George’s brother, who is equally suspicious of Mr. Thorold’s financial dealings. Although Mary doesn’t reveal herself as a spy, she and James form a wary partnership, bickering and bantering as their search for clues takes them all over London, to Thorold’s warehouses and to explore a possible connection with the Lascars (a home for aged sailors.) Along with the clues of the evolving mystery, there is also a subplot involving Angelica eloping with Michael Gray, Thorold’s secretary. There are hints of a revelation about Mary’s past and her ancestry having something to do with China, ripe for exploration in further books in the series.  In the climactic confrontation, it emerges that Mrs. Thorold was, in fact, the mastermind and villainous saboteur, instead of the invalid she appeared to be.

In terms of genre, A Spy in the House predominantly fits the characteristics of historical fiction, although it also incorporates some elements of suspense and mystery, particularly in terms of pacing and mood. The plot hinges on the setting and frame, in terms of culture and in terms of geography.  The idea of an Agency of trained female spies relies on justifying an exception to the historically accurate gender norms in place in Victorian London, to allow for Mary’s boldness and intelligence in piecing together clues. In interviews, author Y.S. Lee describes the conscious decision to create the anachronistic Agency to allow for a resourceful and brave female detective character, as well as to allow some freedom to be playful and push the confines of historical fiction and mystery as genres. Descriptions of the streets of London, smothering and stinking in the grip of a heat wave contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere that prods Mary to take action and push the confines of her assignment with the Thorolds. While Joyce Saricks describes historical fiction as expansive in scope, taking place over years or decades, the scope of this novel is just the few days of Mary’s assignment. However, the meticulous descriptions of setting keep the pacing more measured. Genre elements of suspense include the narrow time frame of the plot, and a certain amount of mood. Focusing almost exclusively on Mary’s perspective, and on the progress she makes in piecing together clues grounds this story more as a historical mystery.

The level of detail of the historical descriptions, and some of the more complex choreography of the action scenes would make this book a good fit for an older middle grade reader, around 6th or 7th grade, and up, and possibly a girl reader because of the tight focus on Mary’s perspective. Because the focus is on capturing the overall atmosphere of Victorian London to use as a backdrop for the mystery, rather than tying to a specific historical event, it makes more sense to categorize this as a book for pleasure reading rather than something assigned in school. (It might make a fun title for a summer reading list, though.)

Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series, beginning with The Ruby in The Smoke brings a female protagonist into Victorian London, incorporating a suspenseful mood and some mysterious plot elements. The Gemma Doyle books, beginning with A Great And Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, incorporate Victorian England and a mystery with spooky fantasy elements. A reader more interested in the spy agency idea than the Victorian setting will enjoy the Gallagher Girl books by Ally Carter, starting with I’d Tell You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You, because they incorporate the idea of a special spy-training school for girls in a modern setting. Because they incorporate a less urban setting, with more fantasy and more arcane styles of language, the Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken might be a stretch, but could fit for a fan of Y.S. Lee.

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