A Cup of Victorianism and a dash of Fascism

Homages to Victorian Thrillers are plentiful these days. Charles Palliser has reinvented the Dickensian novel. John Harwood has stake out territory that adjoins M. R. James and Wilkie Collins. While Andrew Taylor owes a debt to Wilkie Collins, he seems as influenced by Sheridan Le Fanu.

The back of her husband Marcus's hand jolts Lydia Langstone out of the sleepwalking that has characterized most of her life. Lydia packs up and heads to the dreary flat of the father she barely knows, located in Bleeding Heart Square. He shares the building with a cast of characters that would be as comfortable in Uncle Silas as they are here. A few, Fimberry for one, verge on the grotesque both physically and psychologically. The one beacon of normalcy in this house is Rory Wentwood, a journalist newly returned from India. Both Lydia and Rory are drawn into the mystery of Philippa Penlow. Taylor overlays this Gothic mystery with the arguably Gothic events of 1934 England, namely the Depression and the rise Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists.

This isn't a subtle story anymore than The Wyvern Mystery is a study in understatement. Those who appear to be villains are villains; the question isn't "are they guilty" it's "what is the crime?" Learning who has done what and what secrets lie beneath the aristocratic surface of Lydia's family form the core of the mystery. There is a whodunnit here but I'd guess than many a savvy mystery fan will have spotted the culprits and the secrets in advance.

What makes this book worth reading even though you may not be surprised at the twists and outcomes is Taylor's undeniable storytelling talent. He invokes the spirit of the Victorian Sensation novel without adopting all of the conceits. His prose is less luxuriant than Le Fanu's or Harwood's, for example, and Bleeding Heart Square has almost no scenes that don't move the plot along. Taylor is particularly good at describing the horrific in a spare, compact style that heightens the horror.

The grotesque elements may be a problem for some: cows hearts sent through the mail, a child who collects animal bones and skulls, and that old Victorian standby - foul smelling food - all feature prominently. Another drawback is Taylor's heavy-handed irony - how many times do we need to see Lydia Langstone reading "A Room of One's Own" to get the picture? I was also disappointed in Taylor's use of British Fascists as stock villains. I certainly didn't want to see them presented as heroes but a few more details than the well-known tendency of BUF meetings to descend into brawls would have been welcome.

All in all this is a satisfying book that left me wanting to explore more of Andrew Taylor's work. Recommended for historical mystery fans but especially Victorian Thriller/Sensation novel fans.

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