Think of the Victorian Era and you’ll no doubt find your brain assailed by Dickensian images of steam trains, top hats and small children with a glint in their eye and your watch in their pocket.
It was also the heyday for the murder story. Whether it featured Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmes, the newspapers made their fortunes filling their pages with crime rather than celebrity. In a way, the middle-class killer was the celebrity of the day.
This fertile period of history has been mined by Lee Jackson, the man behind the Dictionary of Victorian London (which this month celebrated its tenth anniversary), for his latest novel ‘The Diary of a Murder.’
Lee explains: “The book revolves around the murder of a middle-class housewife, Dora Jones, in her own home. I’d already written Victorian detective stories before with a similar setting, but this time I wanted to make the book from the perspective of the suspect. Hence the police find the diary of Jacob Jones, and the readers come to the murder through the pages of the diary. I think it’s an unusual and distinctive format for a mystery and allows me to explore the minutiae of daily life in a typical household at the same time. It’s essentially The Diary of a Nobody told as murder mystery.”
Like the Diary of a Nobody, his novel has great fun at the expense of 19th centiry morals and the desperate scramble to keep up a middle-class appearance. It was also partly inspired by the diaries of Arthur Munby, a strange Victorian fellow who liked to wander around London interviewing working-class women.
“That book reveals so much of ordinary life in Victorian London that is missed elsewhere, and Munby has a great ‘voice’ as a diarist – so I wanted to recreate something along those lines,” says Lee.
“I’ve immersed myself in Victoriana for the last decade or so. I also hunted down some new diaries, and found a particular one of a visit to Margate that was invaluable for when my characters spend a few days at the seaside.”
Another example of a diary of a murder (or murderer) is Hjalmar Söderberg’s 1906 novel Doctor Glas, about a 19th Century physician who plots to kill his lover’s husband. That caused outrage at the time by dealing with sensitive issues like abortion, eugenics, euthanasia and suicide and was only published in English in 1963.
The Diary of a Murder has its own unique twist, but it is a twist best left for the reader to enjoy. It’s also backed up by the wealth of knowledge that Lee Jackson has built up on his website, including extracts from newspapers and digitised versions of rare Victorian books dealing with everything from chimney sweeps to masturbation.
You can buy The Diary of a Murder in Kindle format and in paperback. Victorian nuts should also follow Lee on Twitter @VictorianLondon for a relentlessly entertaining stream of facts and figures, gaslight photographs and commentaries on the films of Steven Seagal.
Lee Jackson answers a few more questions:
Was The Diary of inspired by any particular murder case? If not, did you research any real life cases before you wrote the novel?
I’ve read a lot of court reports from the Times and elsewhere, and have my website www.victorianlondon.org to draw upon, but I did not fix on one particular case.
How did this novel compare to your previous historical crime fiction books (e.g. London Dust)?
This book is infinitely more meticulously put together than ‘London Dust’ which was a romp through the criminal underworld … the structure of diary entries, and various details of the plot, required an epic amount of co-ordinating dates and times, which I’d be loathe to attempt again!
Does your interest in crime fiction extend to the present day or are you resolutely Victorian in your tastes?
I do largely stick to Victorian crime, and love Wilkie Collins’s books, especially the lesser-known Armadale with its marvellous villain Lydia Gwilt. For modern crime, I’m more a TV person – currently enjoying the Danish ‘The Killing’ – epic in scope, and great use of silence and beautifully-acted emotion, often lacking in our home-grown efforts – or perhaps the subtitles just help you to focus!