As regular readers of this blog know, I'm asked from time to time for recommendations of new books by contemporary authors that might fit the description of a "classic" mystery. I think I have a good recommendation this time about a brand-new historical mystery that fits firmly within the traditional form while dealing with a fascinating case of "what if" involving one of the world's most popular authors of classic fiction. Mystery writer M.J. Trow, who writes several different mystery series, has put Grand and Batchelor, his two fictional Victorian "private enquiry agents" to work solving the apparent murder of Charles Dickens. Yes, that Charles Dickens. The book, published this week by the Crème de la Crime imprint of Severn House, is called The Angel, and the publisher has provided an e-book version for review. It is the subject of this week's Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
First, a few facts: Dickens died on June 9, 1870, after suffering a stroke. At the time, he had been working on his unfinished mystery novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens had what - for Victorian times - might be called an interesting private life, with a number of potential liaisons and mistresses.The English public loved his books, and he remains one of the giants of 19th century English literature.
The central – and fictional – characters in The Angel are two so-called “private enquiry agents,” one American named Matthew Grand, the other an Englishman named James Batchelor. The two men are partners in their firm, investigating together much as a modern “private eye” team might work.
In The Angel, after the sudden death of Charles Dickens, found dead in his so-called chalet, or summer house, Grand and Batchelor are approached by a man named George Sala, in real-life, a biographer and close friend of Dickens. Sala tells the investigators that he believes Dickens did not die of a stroke, as the doctors had announced – instead, says Sala, he was undoubtedly murdered. He wants Grand and Batchelor to find out who committed the murder – and how and why, for that matter.
And away they go – and we go along for the ride. There is a very large cast of characters, most of whom are based on real people: the people who knew Dickens and worked with him, his publishers at Chapman and Hall, his wife Catherine, his rather extensive collection of mistresses, the “Inspector Field” who often took Dickens on his night-time tours of the dreadful slums and criminal dens of 19th-century London, and so on. Almost all of the major characters and many of the minor ones are as real as the pages of history. Of course, some of the events and most of the conversations are fiction, but there are very fine dividing lines here between the reality that we know from biographies of Dickens and his own writings, and the events created by M.J. Trow. This is one case where the usual author’s disclaimer in the book about resemblances is truly significant: “Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.”
I found The Angel to be a very entertaining story, a blend of standard traditional mystery tropes (including clues shared with readers) and a classic subject - the murder of a highly respected and much-admired author. If you enjoy historical mysteries, let me recommend this one to you.