As the Victorians (and their contemporaries across the Channel) more or less invented the detective novel, you’d expect there to be a quite a few Victorians sleuths in fiction, following in the footsteps of the great originals of the nineteenth century novels – Sergeant Cuff, Inspector Bucket and Sherlock Holmes. We do have some good contemporary writers producing excellent historical crime stories, with policemen and amateur detectives sharing the honours (given the apparent reluctance of all classes of Victorian society to actually speak to the police, the amateurs seem to be vital to the detection process, so all the professionals are aided and abetted by wives, girlfriends and so on. Or vice versa). Importantly, the writers are sufficiently steeped in Victorian social and political history to create mysteries which are entirely appropriate to the period, often tying them into real historical events.
Most prominent for some time has been Anne Perry, who writes two series of Victorian crime novels: the first series, involving Inspector Thomas Pitt and his determined wife Charlotte, deals mainly with misdeeds and hypocrisy in the upper reaches of society: Charlotte’s wealthy connections ensure that she is able to infiltrate at-homes and parties to carry out investigations: read about their meeting in the first book The Cater Street Hangman (1979). In the other books, William Monk is an ex-policeman now working as a private investigator after suffering amnesia following an accident: it’s important to read these books in the correct order, as Monk gradually finds out details of his own past. His partner is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale – Hester’s work now proves a useful source of information to Monk. Start with The Face of a Stranger (1990).
More recently, Ann Granger, well known to readers as author of the Mitchell & Markby country crime series, and the grittier, London-set Fran Varady novels, has turned to nineteenth-century London for inspiration, producing the excellent novels centring on Inspector Ben Ross of Scotland Yard and his assistant Elizabeth Martin. Unusually, the two main characters share the first-person narration: the style is refreshingly plain and direct with none of the self-conscious over-writing which can occur in Anne Perry’s work. Characters are believable and the mysteries are good. It’s worth noting here, for crime novel readers in general, that all Ann Granger’s books are usually damned fine reads – good, straightforward but satisfying plots, recounted in plain, vivid English, with understandable, recognisable characters and an easy, flowing style. A Rare Interest in Corpses (2006) opens the series.
Deanna Raybourn has recently published the fifth book in her enjoyable series featuring Lady Julia Grey and her sparring partner/love interest Nicholas Brisbourne. Again the details of Victorian society are examined but this time by an insider. If you enjoy these – the series begins with Silent in the Grave (2006) and the latest instalment is The Dark Enquiry (2011) – it might be worth looking at the Emily Ashton series by Tasha Alexander, which opens with And Only To Deceive (2005). Interestingly, of the writers mentioned so far, only Ann Granger is British: Ann Perry is a New Zealander (with a rather surprising history of her own: as a teenager, she was convicted with her friend Pauline Parker of the murder of Parker’s mother), Deanna Raybourn and Tasha Alexander are American. Another American producing well-thought-of Victorian crime ( he has various awards to prove it) is Charles Finch, creator of gentleman sleuth Charles Lennox. Start with A Beautiful Blue Death (2007).
Two authors have chosen to concentrate on the railways of nineteenth-century Britain for their settings: Andrew Martin and Edward Marston. Both are good and informative, with sound historical research informing the narratives; Martin’s first Jim Stringer book, The Necropolis Railway (2002), stands out for its unusual, creepy background.
In the Edinburgh of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, Alanna Knight’s Inspector Faro investigates sixteen mysteries, commencing with Enter Second Murderer (1988), while his daughter, Rose Quinn, begins her career in detection with The Inspector’s Daughter (2000). These atmospheric novels are deservedly popular – the mysteries are intriguing and the central characters likeable.
See also: The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime 9780143106210
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/ben_macintyre/article4353407.ece. A wide-ranging discussion arising from Kate Summerscale’s non-fiction The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009), which re-examines the murder of a child in 1860. Another true-crime book is Mr Briggs’ Hat (2011) by Kate Colquhoun, the story of the first railway murder.