What do serial killers, Scotland Yard, women’s suffrage, the Industrial Revolution, and Sherlock Holmes all have in common? They represent key elements of fiction set in the Victorian Age, that huge hunk of the 19th-century dominated by Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901).
Many say that the mystery genre owes its very existence to Victorian-era writers. American author Edgar Allan Poe is credited with jump-starting the modern detective novel, but mystery historians give major nods to period British storytellers Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), and—drum roll, please—Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes canon) for firmly establishing the detective novel.
Romance columnist Kristin Ramsdell and I agree that the Victorian era was a juicy time for both our genres. Contemporary romance and mystery can be traced back to common Victorian roots, and the two genres also have quite a few authors in common, both then and now. Of course, historical mysteries tend to focus on the more violent aspects of the Victorian era, such as Jack the Ripper, espionage, addictive drugs, the birth of forensics, and Scotland Yard. Additionally, the women’s suffrage movement gives momentum to the “couple sleuthing” detective novel and the woman adventurer. See Kris’s comments on Victorian romance, romantic suspense, and steampunk.
A century later, a huge wave of interest in historical crime fiction crested in the 1970s. Benchmark authors from this period are instantly recognizable: Anne Perry (the William Monk series and the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series), Peter Lovesey (the Sgt. Richard Cribb series and the Prince Albert series), and Elizabeth Peters (the Amelia Peabody series).
David Morrell’s newest thriller, Murder as a Fine Art , works as a fine introduction to Victoriana for newbies. It weaves in distinctly 19th-century elements but is as accessible as any Dan Brown title. Do try these as well: Caro Peacock, aka Gillian Linscott (the Liberty Lane series), Philip Gooden (the Thomas Ansell series), Tasha Alexander (the Lady Emily Ashton series), Alex Grecian ( The Yard; The Black Country ), Gyles Brandreth (the Oscar Wilde series), Charles Finch (the Charles Lenox series), Carol Carr (the India Black series), Louis Bayard ( Mr. Timothy ), Sally Spencer (the Inspector Sam Blackstone series), and Edward Marston (the Railway Detective series). Outside the box is Tabish Khair’s The Thing About Thugs, which sets an Indian protagonist in Victorian London. And doing her bit for cross blending, Joanna Campbell Slan has two hot titles in her new Jane Eyre series.
Dying for more? Don’t miss Judith Flanders’s new nonfiction title, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. We starred this [LJ 6/1/13] as a must-buy, true crime history. And just a click away: visit victorianweb.org from Brown University for all things literary, or see Lee Jackson’s www.victorianlondon.org for social history details galore.