Lee Jackson, London Dust (London: Arrow, 2003) 296 pp.
<1> The cover of this Victorian thriller is oddly contemporary: a photograph that looks like a still from a grainy video film (Blair Witch Project anyone?). The ostensibly banal subject of the cover-photo -- the inside of a derelict house -- becomes creepingly sinister the longer you look at it. A great swathe of wallpaper hangs from the corner of a room, about to fall, for all the world like a theatre curtain (and of course a visual emblem of suspense). The contents of the book bear this out: a murder mystery set on the cheaper end of the 1850s music hall scene. This is an altogether seedier, and more monochrome world than the gaudy glamour of its more visible cousin. A world of 'penny-gaffs' -- glorified pub back-rooms -- around Whitechapel and the then notorious Ratcliff Highway.
<2> The plot centres on the murder of Ellen Warwick, belle of the penny-gaffs and 'in her way, quite famous'. The chief suspect is her maid, Nathalie Meadows, who has unfortunately just been fished dead from the Thames. Little do the police know that the body they have salvaged is of some other nameless, hapless suicide, and that Nathalie has in fact emerged on the other side of the river and reinvented herself as Flora Thorne, maid-detective, determined to get to the bottom of her mistress's murder. Her story is alternated with that of Harry Shaw, jack-of-all-trades, none of them legal, who scrapes by on whatever he can con or thieve. With Nathalie Meadows out of the frame, the police turn their attention to Harry for 'help with their enquiries'. As Nathalie/Flora pursues her quarry, and Harry evades arrest, the reader is introduced to a colourful selection of characters from a cross-section of Victorian society (although never quite so characterful that 'Dickens would have relished' them, as the cover blurb gushes), all of whom are possible culprits. From the erring James Aspenn, M.P., to cobwebby Cecil Court booksellers; from Arthur Wilkes, cruel impresario, to the Reverend Hengist Wallace, advocate of Hygienic Christianity and firm believer that the road to heaven is furnished with a daily bath, it turns out that however unlikely the starting point, all roads lead again and again to Ellen and the mystery at the centre of her life.
<3> It shouldn't take too long for a 21st century reader with a dirty mind to solve this mystery, but needless to say, it comes as something of shock to Nathalie/Flora when she reaches the object of her investigations. What does keep the pages turning for the reader, and eventually delivers a satisfyingly horrid conclusion, is the search for Ellen's murderer. The identity of this character is in keeping with the corrupt and dissolute world revealed by the novel, in which everyone has something to hide.
<4> This is all set firmly (as one would expect from the title) in London, and because of the range of its cast, this London stretches from Bethnal Green to Mayfair. Each chapter heading indicates a route through the city, whether from 'Manchester Square to Seven Dials' or 'Shoreditch to Brick Lane', reflecting the passage of the variegated characters through this city, which is generous enough to hold them all, but not if they get ideas above (or indeed below) their station. All these areas act as class signifiers, and although the people of the novel may travel easily between them via the streets and alleys, any other kind of movement is impossible - as the socially aspirant Ellen Warwick, and the downwardly spiralling James Aspenn find out to their cost.
<5> Of course, half the point of any historical novel is to show the reader the origins of their contemporary world, so on the way to finding out whodunnit, Jackson has fun (and throughout the novel you get the impression he is enjoying himself mightily) drawing parallels with modern-day gangsterism and villainy. But more intriguingly he also shows us the power exerted by the newly emerging art of photography, and the magical pull of its double promise of immortality and intimacy. As much as the streets of London herself, it is a photograph that proves the undoing of these characters. If (as a colleague of mine maintains) the eighteenth century is yellow, then the nineteenth is surely red and black, and the sex and death at the heart of London Dust fit comfortably into this colour scheme.