5th Sep 2012
The Bodice Ripper: D.E Meredith’s Devoured
Okay, so that’s what I do all year round. But there’s something about autumn that turns my mind to the past – maybe it’s the mist-shrouded streets, the scent of woodsmoke in the air, the way capes are in fashion for the month and a half they’re actually practical.
I’m not the only one who feels that way – the internet abounds with discussions about ‘seasonal reading’, and every year I bite my tongue in an effort not to scoff at the Johnny-come-latelys who eschew historical fiction during the other three seasons.
Either way, the gods of publishing (or at least publishing house Allison & Busby) have smiled kindly on readers this year, and brought out the first in a series of Victorian detective novels right at the tail end of the summer.
D.E Meredith’s Devoured is the first in her series of mysteries starring Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant Albert Roumande, along with a cast of supporting characters that would leave Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins green with envy.
The seemingly unconnected murders of a prominent lady philanthropist and science enthusiast and a motley collection of young street girls spark off a hunt for a killer that leads them straight to the contentious debates around evolution, natural selection and the future of scientific research.
In true Victorian style, Meredith intersperses the narrative with letters from a young scientist to the murdered Lady Bressingham, and the contrast between grey London and the vividness of Africa is perfectly done – they evoke Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley’s writing and straddle that tricky line between persevering the historical accuracy of the novel without indulging in sentimental colonialist fantasies.
If the novel has one flaw, it is that the minor characters are more interesting than the protagonists – but given how well-drawn those characters are, I’m not complaining.
Hatton is – or at least sees himself – as the hero of the piece, the maverick young doctor exploring the grisly new frontier of forensics, and his internal monologue gives tantalising glimpses of a back story I’d like to see explored, and the slight chip on his shoulder makes him real and sympathetic by making him a little less likeable.
Roumande, a Frenchman with a strong sense of social justice and a happy family life, is a wonderful sidekick but I’d like to see more of him in future novels.
They are assisted by a self-aggrandising golden boy of Scotland Yard with his own secrets, and their villainous counterparts are more than a match for them.
A feisty madam who runs a seditious printing press and does a nice line in blackmail was one of my favourite characters – the way she justifies her actions to herself is thoroughly plausible, and she brings to mind that other morally ambiguous femme fatale of the 19th century, Lydia Gwilt of Armadale.
Throw in a parliamentary clerk more abject than even Dickens could manage, a handful of aristocrats with murky secrets and a haunting scene set on desolate marshland with a taxidermist who I mentally cast as Sean Bean and you’ve got the first in a terrific series.
The best advice I can give is to run, not walk, to your nearest bookshop and buy a copy – then snuggle under a blanket with a pot of tea* because once you start Devoured, you won’t be able to put it down.
*London is currently unseasonably warm, so if you’re unfortunate enough to live here too, just turn the air con on and pretend it’s proper autumn.