The bells of St. Mary-Le-Bow toll eleven o’clock. The narrow streets of London’s East End are strangely deserted. Out of the swirling fog comes the clip-clop of horseshoes on cobble. A carriage appears. I squint, struggling to decipher the crest on the carriage door. From within the passenger compartment, a gloved hand emerges. Wait—is that a gun?
I flip the page, my heart in my throat, as the modern world vanishes in the foul-smelling mist.
It’s London, 1850. Soon a body will turn up—floating in the Thames or sprawled in one of the brick-walled alleys. I settle in for another blissful sojourn in Victorian England.
“Sexual repression, dark alleys, great detectives, ornate prose,” says author James McCreet (“Why we all love a Victorian Murder,” The Guardian, 15 May 2011). “No wonder the 19th century is our template for crime fiction…[and] if there’s a silhouetted top hat, a rustle of crinoline and a scream cut short with straight razor, all the better.”
I couldn’t agree more. Here are my Top Ten Reasons why Victorian England is the perfect setting for murder:
1. The Famous London Fog
Oh, those thick-as-pea-soup fogs—useful for concealing pick-pockets and cutthroats, handy for the disposal of bodies, perfect for setting that deliciously sinister atmosphere.
Although Londoners have been complaining about air quality since the thirteenth century, it was the Industrial Revolution that increased the frequency and severity of the periodic fogs—a million coal-fired stoves simultaneously emitting sulfurous yellow smoke. In 1833, Richard Rush of the Court of London wrote: “On the 22nd of the month, accidents occurred all over London….Carriages ran against each other, and persons were knocked down by them at the crossings. The whole gang of thieves seemed to be let loose. After perpetrating their deeds, they eluded detection by darting into the fog…an opake, dingy yellow (from The Dictionary of Victorian London).”
2. Opium-Eaters & the Lure of Laudanum
A doorway in Whitechapel opens into a smoke-filled chamber, the air fetid with sweat, bile, and the bittersweet odor of opium. Bodies lay strewn across low cots or two-tiered bunks, class distinctions abandoned in the communal drug-induced stupor.
Near the end of the era, Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): “There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.”
In an age when the management of pain was in its infancy, opiates were part of everyday life. Laudanum, a mixture of ten percent opium and 90 percent alcohol, has been called “the nineteenth-century aspirin.” Opiates were present in the slums of Devil’s Acre and in the drawing rooms of Belgravia. In crime fiction, they provide a motive for murder or a distraction, designed to throw us off the scent.
Segue to the English countryside, a grand house with a full staff of servants. The Victorian social structure offers a treasure chest of intriguing possibilities—petty rivalries, class struggles, below-stairs’ intrigues, accusations of petty theft, and pretty housemaids with an eye on the lord of the manor. Add in an oh-so-proper butler, a dour housekeeper with a shameful past, a ridiculously handsome footman who attracts the eye of the baronet’s nubile daughter, and an unfortunate scullery maid who finds the body and screams like a banshee. I come from a line of Scottish servants. I know their lot was grim. But in mystery fiction, they are essential minor characters—the canny footman who notices the mud on the Bentley’s tyres, the lady’s maid who quietly removes the bloodstains from her lady’s frock, the nanny who dozes off while her infant charge is snatched. They are creatures of myth in a world that never existed. Maybe that’s why we love them.
4. Potent Poisons
Poison was the first choice of many Victorian murderers—especially women. Overbearing husband? Simply soak a little flypaper and add arsenic to his Christmas pudding. If your husband’s bit-on-the-side got herself pregnant (nothing to do with him, naturally), a nice box of chocolates laced with strychnine should do the trick.
The strangest case of poisoning in Victorian England has to be Adelaide Bartlett, whose husband, Edwin, died with a large quantity of liquid chloroform in his belly. How did it get there? No traces were found in his mouth or throat. If Adelaide had poured the chloroform down her husband’s throat as he slept, some would have ended up in his lungs. None was found. Adelaide was acquitted. Later, Sir James Paget of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital appealed to her sense of public spirit: “Now that it is all over, she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it.”
5. The Village Doctor
What would a Victorian country-house mystery be without a murder? And what would a Victorian county-house murder be without the venerable village doctor? He’s an old friend of the family, naturally, and eager to certify the cause of death in a way guaranteed to cause the family—who haven’t paid him a farthing since the old Queen’s coronation—the least possible fuss. A poisoning is put down to digestive troubles. If Sir Henry is found in his library, shot through the heart, his death is obviously an accident whilst cleaning his gun. In his well-meaning lies, the village doctor is aided by the fact that no forensic examination will be held. The body will be safely buried before the sleuth can object.
6. The Age of Exotica
How many ways are there to kill someone? In Victorian England, the possibilities seemed endless and expanding—untraceable poisons added to a glass of port, venomous snakes from the rain forests of South America tucked beneath the eiderdown. Three decades after the death of Queen Victoria, the Detection Club stated that playing fair with the reader forbids the use of hitherto undiscovered poisons, but they remain useful in crime fiction precisely because the Victorians believed in them.
During the nineteenth century, amateur adventurers and explorers left England in great numbers to investigate new lands. Tales of strange creatures fueled the public imagination—as did sensational claims of miracle cures from exotic substances like mumia (powdered mummies). Victorian England was particularly mesmerized by Dr. Serge Voronoff, a French doctor of Russian descent, who claimed that monkey testicles (either grafted or injected) could reactivate youthful vigor and even extend life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a doctor, used the idea in his 1923 story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man.”
7. The Cult of Death
Imagine this: after several years on a coffee plantation in Kenya, a young man arrives at the Kensington townhouse of his elderly aunt, only to learn that her funeral had been held a week earlier. “What carried dear Aunt Tilly away?” he asks. Responses are vague—old age, a week heart, a bilious liver. Should he accept the verdict or hire the services of a private investigator?
In Victorian England, thanks to disease, the dangers of childbirth, and the misguided attentions of family doctors, death was an ever-present reality. The Victorians were obsessed with death. They celebrated mortality in anthropomorphic taxidermy, prolonged periods of mourning, the wearing of jewelry made from their loved one’s hair, and jolly picnics in cemeteries. The creepiest trend was the practice of photographing the dead just before burial. The corpses were posed in semi-natural poses, often with other members of the family propping them up.
8. What—No Telephone?
One of the benefits of Victorian crime fiction is the convenient lack of modern technology. Someone is found dead. How are the authorities notified? In nineteenth-century England, you can’t just pick up the telephone. You don’t own one, nor does anyone you know. Instead, a messenger is dispatched on bicycle to alert the local constable—probably tucked up in his bed.
In the autumn of 1877, Britain had exactly two telephones—both gifts of Alexander Graham Bell to the Baylys family of Torr House near Plymouth. It wasn’t until the end of the Victorian era that telephones were accessible to ordinary people. Perfect. The delay gives you plenty of time to move the body, rearrange the crime scene, and practice everyone’s alibi.
9. Fascination with the Occult
So how did dear Aunt Tilly die? Who would know better than Tilly herself? Fortunately Madame Andovny, the famous medium—aka Maude Chubb from Bethnal Green—is holding seances. Slip a few bob her way and Tilly will appear from the Other Side, assuring her nephew that she died of natural causes and has left the bulk of her not inconsiderable fortune to her housekeeper and her husband.
The spiritualist movement in Victorian England swarmed with hucksters like the three sisters in New York, self-styled clairvoyants who gained international fame, only to later admit the whole thing began as an April Fools’ joke.
10. True Crime
The Victorians reveled in tales of murder—and not just fictional. In 1946, George Orwell fantasized about settling down in front of a fire with his pipe and a cup of tea and opening the News of the World. “What is it that you want to read about?” he asked. “Naturally, about a murder (“The Decline of the English Murder,” Tribune, February 1946). Jack the Ripper, Dr. Crippen, the Mannings of the Bermondsey Horror, Frederick Seddon, Neill Cream, Mrs. Maybrick—there was nothing the Victorians loved more than a good murder. The daily newspapers made certain every trial and especially every grisly public execution got front-page coverage.
Today, we see the taking of life through a different lens. To paraphrase Hercule Poirot, we do not approve of murder. Maybe that’s why readers still seek out the foggy streets of Victorian England, the top-hatted madman, and the arsenic-laced blancmange. It’s fiction. As James McCreet said, “The Victorians are “a faded sepia image of ourselves…half-formed, more innocent, unaware of the future. In reading about them we enjoy the frisson of a past that is distant enough to be novel and near enough to remain relevant.”
As the world becomes more violent and moral lines are blurred, we can still escape to a place where evil is punished and justice is restored.