Posts Tagged ‘victorian’

Murder as a Fine Art

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.

So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.

It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?

In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.

The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey – an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.

Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.

And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.

How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?

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Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Hello, friends! Did you hear about the “fatberg”? It was a 15-ton conglomeration of solid fat found in a London sewer. (This NPR blog post has a photo. If you’re the queasy type, don’t click; just take my word for it.) This thing was 15 tons of congealed fat mixed with disposable wipes. Sewage workers spent 3 weeks hacking it into chunks which were then taken away in “heavy-duty lorries”. They said, “If we hadn’t discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston [in suburban London].” Workers are now busy repairing the damage done by the fatberg to the sewer.

You’ve probably noticed my fascination with sewers and the grotty details of urban life. And naturally, the first thing I thought when I heard this was, “Well. This would never have happened in Victorian London.” And it has nothing to do with population growth or advances in kitchen plumbing. Or the fact that baby wipes hadn’t yet been invented.

The first thing is that solid fat was an important resource in the nineteenth century. It was part of English cuisine (beef dripping or bacon fat spread on bread; lard in pastries; fats from all animals cooked into meals) and, if you were poor, an essential source of calories and nutrients. Fat also had commercial value: you could render it down and use it to make soap. If you had an excess of fat, you could sell it around the neighbourhood, or to the scrapman who came to your door. Indeed, fat was relatively expensive: there’s a traditional treat called lardycake, a sort of brioche made with lard and currants. It’s a festive food, associated with special occasions, and part of that is because of the extravagance of kneading sugar, dried fruit, and lard into a bread dough. But I digress. My point is that because of fat’s many uses and significant value, no one would deliberately pour it down the drain.

Even so, a small amount of fat must have found its way into the sewers (greasy dishwater, spills). We know this because in 1862, a journalist named John Hollingshead explored the sewers and and noticed “icicles” of fat clinging to the sewer roof. But remember! At this time, sewers drain straight back into the Thames. And this is where the mudlarks came in handy: poor Londoners, often children, who scavenged through rubbish on the riverbanks. They collected whatever refuse could possibly be recycled or re-used. Any clots of fat they spotted bobbing on the water would have been harvested and sold, too.

We had to wait until the early twenty-first century, and our prodigality with (and simultaneous terror of consuming) solid fats, and our domestic laziness in flushing everything down the toilet, before we could experience the Fatberg. Not really much of an advance, is it?

P. S. You probably don’t need to be told this now but please don’t pour cooking fat down the sink, especially the stuff from your festive turkey or your weekend bacon. Please don’t flush disposable wipes or maxi pads down the toilet. Don’t put hair in the toilet, either. All these things will only come back to get you in the monstrous form of the Fatberg.

P. P. S. Thanks to my friend Sean Burgess, who first alerted me to the Fatberg.

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A coffee and “two thin”

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Hello, friends. At the grocery store recently, I was overwhelmed by the idea of how much energy goes into producing and packaging the food I eat. I bought a bunch of cilantro that was grown in California, with all the ground preparation, seeding, watering, weeding, and pest-deterring that farming entails. It was picked (hopefully by legal labour, not migrant children), washed, roots lopped off (pity, because cilantro roots are delicious in curry pastes), bundled, boxed, and trucked more than 3000km (1900 miles) to Ontario. It was then sorted and driven again to my local supermarket, where somebody arranged them all neatly. All I did was pick the bunch that looked nicest to me. It cost $0.99.

How is this even possible? I know there are economies of scale, but I still find it boggling. And cilantro is about as unprocessed a food as you can buy, packaged only with a printed twist tie. What if you buy a can of tuna? Breakfast cereal, or tropical fruit juice, or a frozen dinner?

Then I read about working-class breakfasts in Victorian London. This is from Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City, which I mentioned last week:

Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class… cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful… The nearest running water might be a street pump, which functioned for just a few hours a week. Several factors – the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities – meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.

Consequently, working-class people bought breakfast from coffee-stalls on the street, where a cup of coffee and “two thin” – that’s two thin slices of bread-and-butter – might cost half a penny or a penny, depending on where you lived. This sounds very cheap to us, of course. But let’s consider that in the context of working-class incomes.

According to Flanders’s research, a coffee-stall holder would typically work nine hours a day (starting late at night, or at 3 or 4 in the morning), six days a week, every day of the year. For that labour, he or she would earn about £30 a year. That’s an average daily gross income of about a shilling, or twenty pennies. From that, the stallholder must rent or maintain his coffee-stall; buy fuel, coffee, bread, butter, and haul water for the coffee-stall; and, of course, feed and clothe his family, and keep them warm and housed. All on an income of a shilling a day, or 24 ha’penny cups of coffee. It’s an astonishing portrait of subsistence.

Let’s flip it around in modern-day terms. The closest I have to a streetside coffee-stall is the Tim Horton’s (a doughnut shop) up the street, where coffee and a bagel costs about $2.50. If you were to set up as a streetside coffee-stall selling coffee-bagel combos for $2.50, and you had 24 customers in a nine-hour shift, that’s a take of just $60 a day. If you worked 6 days a week for every week of the year, you would gross $18, 720. From that, you would need to pay for the same things: rent or repairs on the coffee-stall; coffee, bagels, butter, a water supply, fuel; your own rent, and the needs of your family. Subsistence again. You’d be hard-pressed to buy three coffee-and-bagel meals a day for your family of four.

Converting money between the nineteenth century and the present day is very complicated and I don’t want to claim that these are precise equivalents. But this is a vivid and immediate way of thinking about food, energy, and value, when many of us are so extremely privileged. It makes my cilantro look both cheap and frivolous.

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The Berners Street Hoax

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Hello, friends. Many of you know that I love Judith Flanders’s work. She writes marvellously detailed social histories and her special area interest is the Victorian period. I highly recommend both The Victorian House and Consuming Passions for anyone interested in Victorian daily life, and The Invention of Murder is irresistible for those, like me, who love mysteries and detective fiction. Really, if I could choose to have the contents of one person’s brain imported directly into my own, I think I’d choose Flanders.

And she has a new book out! When I saw the title, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London, I yelped with excitement. And  when I actually received the book (it was a gift from Nick), its beauty made me gasp.

This image doesn't do the cover justice. The pinkish-cream half is a separate band of paper that wraps around the hardcover, like a mini-dustjacket. It's beautifully antiqued, with subtle faux-foxing, and the title and borders are in gold.

I’m now starting to dip into it and I will report back when I’ve finished the book, but the first thing I read was too good to resist telling you about now. I know I’ve missed April Fool’s Day by two days, but I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Flanders opens with an incident called the Berners Street Hoax, which begins “early one morning in November 1810, long before breakfast”, when a chimney sweep knocks on the door of 54 Berners Street, saying he has been sent for. The residents say no, and close the door. This is the sort of minor annoyance that must happen to all tradespeople from time to time. But what happens next?

According to Flanders, “soon the house was besieged by sweeps, all claiming they had been summoned. They were swiftly followed by dozens of wagons bringing coal… legions of fishmongers” and, she quotes, “piano-fortes by the dozens… two thousand five hundred raspberry tarts from half a hundred pastry-cooks – a squad of surgeons – a battalion of physicians, and a legion of apothecaries – lovers to see sweethearts; ladies to find lovers – upholsterers to furnish houses, and architects to build them – gigs, dog-carts, and glass-coaches”.

And this is just the beginning! Flanders is quoting from what sounds like a street ballad (it’s not cited in the end notes), so there’s more than a hint of exaggeration, here. (I question the 2500 raspberry tarts: it’s November, so where did the raspberries come from? I’m happy to believe in apple tarts, though.) But, for what it’s worth:

The surgeons first, armed with catheters, arrive

And impatiently ask is the patient alive.

The man servant stares – now ten midwives appear,

‘Pray, sir, does the lady in labor live here?’

‘Here’s a shell,” cries a man, ‘for the lady that’s dead,

My master’s behind with the coffin of lead.’

Next a waggon, with furniture loaded approaches,

Then a hearse all be-plumed and six mourning coaches,

Six baskets of groceries – sugars, teas, figs;

Ten drays full of beer – twenty boxes of wigs.

Fifty hampers of wine, twenty dozen French rolls,

Fifteen huge waggon loads of best Newcastle coals –

But the best joke of all was to see the fine coach

Of his worship the mayor, all bedizen’d, approach;

As it pass’d up the street the mob shouted aloud,

His lordship was pleased, and most affably bow’d,

Supposing, poor man, he was cheered by the crowd…

And it doesn’t end there! After the Lord Mayor, there came “rows of carriages of the city’s grandees, all invited to a party” (Flanders), the chairman of the East India Company, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Duke of Gloucester.

It’s challenging to visualize a prank on this scale: traffic jams, tears of frustration, frantic denial, roars of indignation and, most of all, the sheer number of onlookers who must have flocked to the scene. Terrific, in every sense of the word.

How was your April Fool’s Day? Mine was perfectly tame, and I confess myself relieved.


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Faster, Higher, Stronger

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

So, the Olympics. As cynical as we’ve become about doping, fiscal and political scandals in host cities, and the sheer pomp of the Games, the athletic performances themselves are truly stirring, skin-prickling stuff. And the Olympics hold a special kind of interest in my family because my uncle, Cheah Tong Kim, represented his country, Malaysia, in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the past few days, watching highlights from the London Games got me thinking back to the birth of the modern Olympics. I knew they were a late-Victorian inspiration that resulted in the 1896 Games in Athens. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games.

Before the Victorian era, there was a modern attempt to recreate the Olympic Games: the L’Olympiade de la République, which was held for 3 years in revolutionary France (1789, remember?). It makes sense: egalitarianism, a chance to compete physically, rather than socially or economically – it was a perfect kind of celebratory contest for revolutionary times.

Then came a lapse of about 60 years, which also makes sense: Victorian intellectuals greatly admired classical literature and culture, and it’s logical that they wanted to emulate the famous athletic contests of the ancients. But the French Revolution scared the pants off Western European monarchies, so there had to be a lapse of a few generations between the L’Olympiade de la République and any safe imitation.

So it wasn’t until 1850 that an English surgeon called William Penny Brookes established an Olympic Games in Wenlock, Shropshire. According to wikipedia, his aim was the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes” (italics mine). That sort of paternalistic do-gooding couldn’t really be more Victorian.

There were other English Olympics: in Liverpool, for a few years in the 1860s. One at the Crystal Palace in London in 1860. But it was the Wenlock Olympics that really became a strong annual tradition. And in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Olympic Games, visited Wenlock and was inspired to establish the International Olympic Committee. Extraordinary, isn’t it?

How do you like the sound of Wenlock 2050, on the two-hundredth anniversary of their first Olympic Games?

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La Detective

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

My Italian publisher, Mondadori, just sent me the cover for their edition of Spy, which will be published in March. Its title is La Detective. Note how artificially calm I sound, in these few sentences.

La Detective, published by Mondadori

La Detective, published by Mondadori

Here’s the full dust jacket:

La Detective, full dust jacket

And now, the truth: I screamed like a girly-girl when I saw this. I can’t get over it. I love the use of period photographs, the wrought-iron ornamentation around the title, the flash of pink. If I were in the mood to cavil, I’d point out that Mary never, ever uses a gun – but what the hell. It’s not as though a handkerchief or a pen would be a good substitute.

God, it’s exquisite.


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Inventing tradition

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Contest winners and the writing life

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

I had an utterly excellent day at RND High School last week, talking to students about Victorian hygiene, inventions, fashion, and radical women (among other things). The students were a terrific audience – courteous, curious, energetic. Thanks for being such exemplars of audience awesomeness! If you heard me speak at Regi and would like to be entered into the draw for one of three Agency t-shirts, remember to email me and either a) ask a question or b) remind me of one you asked last Thursday. I’ll announce the winners next week.

A typically ridiculous lecturing posture. If I could help it, I would.

A typically ridiculous lecturing posture. If I could help it, I would.

Living in Canada, where Spy hasn’t yet been released, I’ve never seen a copy of my book in a real live bookstore. Really, this whole “I’m a writer” business could just be an elaborate hallucination on my part. But recently, Marie-Louise Jensen, a friend and fellow YA novelist, sent me this: ocular proof that Spy is for sale in the shops. And she faced it out, too – now that’s what friends are for! (The book on top is Marie-Louise’s The Lady in the Tower, which I really enjoyed. Do check it out.)

The Lady & the Spy

The Lady & the Spy

And finally, here are the winners of my recent contest, Countdown to the Agency. The winner of the UK edition of The Agency: A Spy in the House is Haley Mathiot. Second- and third-place winners of The Agency sticker are Mariana Sanchez and Andrea Lacerte. Congratulations! Please email me with your postal addresses and I’ll get the goods out to you right away. If you didn’t win this time, fear not – there’ll be More Swag coming in the next few months, right up to the March 9 launch of the US edition of Spy.

I’ve realized that it’s ridiculous to post everything people wrote about books that haunted them. (I guess I was expecting 5 or 6 entries…) So I’ve decided to post a small selection of entries, all on books I haven’t read. One of my ulterior motives in asking the “haunted” question (Hallowe’en aside) is that I always love to hear about what others read. Hopefully, you’re the same way.

Becky chose Dream Spinner by Bonnie Dobkin, “about a man with a pet spider that can talk. Together they take people’s dreams and weave them like a thread into a huge tapestry. 3 friends come across his house, and are eager to enter their dreams… but when nightmares start to take over, will they be able to wake up again?”

Mariana chose Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, “because it really made me think about the things you do that affect people around you, even if you don’t notice.”

Haley chose Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith and reviewed it at her blog.

Andrea chose Les Enfants Indigos by Sylvie Simon, “a non-fiction book about a new type of child who is here to lead us to the next level of consciousness! The idea is that these new children need truth, and will not longer settle for the old answers of “just because” or even try to fit into institutions that are not adapting to their needs. The book gives examples of how they see the world… very old souls indeed!”

Mary chose Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. “The writing is beautiful, the plot intricate and the story manages to be tragic, poignant, inspiring and deeply satisfying all at once. The relationships between the characters are so heartfelt they will linger in my mind forever.  The tragic part of the story [which I won’t give away in case you haven’t read it] is hauntingly sad.”

Emily chose The Ragwitch by Garth Nix. It’s supposed to be a young adult book, I’m ‘slightly’ older than young adult but it scared me silly! At one point, the girl is trapped inside the mind of the Rag Witch, and the thoughts of the witch are made of rags – makes me shiver just thinking about it!”

Jason chose Circus Parade by Jim Tully, “a memoir of life in the violent, criminal, yet sometimes magical circus world in early 20th century America. What haunted me was how cruel the life on the road could be, but how a rogues’ honour emerged from this cruelty for some, and manifested as evil in others.”

Robin chose We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. “The narrator writes about her son and how she never felt bonded to him, and as a teenager he commits mass murder at his school. It was a very harrowing read!”

Jennifer chose Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes, in which “Anna keeps catching glimpses of her husband everywhere and doesn’t understand why he won’t return her calls and emails… The novel is so heartbreaking.”

Finally, when I was at Regi, students asked me a number of excellent questions about writing and publishing. I’ll try to answer these in an orderly fashion over the next month or so. Next week, the first instalment: on writing.

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La Agencia: Una espia en casa

Friday, September 25th, 2009

THE AGENCY: A SPY IN THE HOUSE is on sale now in the UK, with a full North American debut in spring 2010. Canadian availability will be patchy until then, but you can try Amazon or the Book Depository.

It went sale in Australia and New Zealand on June 1! You can link here to my Southern Hemisphere publisher, Walker Books Australia.

La Agencia

La Agencia

The Spanish edition was published on June 2. Isn’t the cover gorgeous? And my publisher, Ediciones Versatil, made a bookmark for you! Click here for the PDF.

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