In association with


British Mysteries

cover An Orkney Murder cover The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

For some reason I ended up reading two little-known British detective stories, both from the Nottingham Public Library, both set in the late Victorian period. [rant mode on] It annoys me no end that books like these are not available in ordinary bookstores, at least not if you don't already know about them and want them enough to order them. All the bookstores in the UK seem to be clones of one horrible bookstore, with five hundred copies of the latest Harry Potter, and lots of books about sports that I care nothing about, and loads of celebrity chef cookbooks. (And in fact I like celebrity chef cookbooks, but I don't like depressing bookstores with nothing of interest to browse.) In other words, I rarely go into even a large "good" bookstore in the UK (like Waterstones) and FIND SOMETHING, as in something that I haven't heard of before but that I am compelled to buy and read. In some ways that's good - I spend less money impulse buying, but, look, I am going to read the same amount anyway, I am just enjoying it less. [rant mode off]
The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (Peter Lovesey) refers to boxing shorts (I thought it was going to have some erotic element to it, but any that it has is only incidental to the plot.) It is quite interesting though, and you learn a lot about the sport of bare-knuckle fighting which was made illegal in the UK in the 1870s but persisted for a long time after. You also learn the origins of such expressions as "come up to scratch" and "throw in the sponge" and "throw his hat in the ring".
I didn't realise that An Orkney Murder, by Alanna Knight, was also set in late Victorian times until I started reading it. It features a way-ahead-of-her-time Scottish female private investigator. It also features an archaeological dig in the Orkneys and dark domestic secrets in a Scottish family. In the end, I got rather irritated at this book, for a reason that often applies when I am reading novels by contemporary writers set in the Victorian period. They just sound far too contemporary and therefore anachronistic. It is always a problem when writing a story set in the past to know how the people would sound, their diction, their colloquialisms, their social markers, all that. The bigger problem with a Victorian setting is that there are so many wonderful extant Victorian writers. I have read so much Conan Doyle, Dickens, Trollope and the like, not to mention my favourite childhood novels Little Women and Black Beauty, which I must have read 100 times each, that it is a very rare historical novel from that period that doesn't sound horribly false to me. But this one was egregiously so. But if you don't have my problem, you may be able to enjoy it, if only for the plot (which was only pretty good) and the main character.
The Lovesey book was, for me, a far better read, even though I have little interest in the Victorian London underworld and bare-knuckle fighting, and lots of interest in Victorian Orkney and archaeology and women private detectives. Just goes to show what a huge difference writing style, careful research and natural talent can make.