1886. Re-released by Text in 2012; e-book
I decided to read this in preparation for reading another book: Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster which is next on the reading pile. I’d seen the recent television adaption but, as is often the case when I watch crime shows on television, I am left with only fleeting impressions and no memory of detail at all.
This book very much lies within the 19-20th century detective novel genre, but what is significant here is that it predates Sherlock Holmes by a year and marks the cross-over from popular 19th century sensation fiction into what we now know as detective fiction. Moreover, it was the first internationally-acclaimed novel set in Melbourne- a feat that has not really been replicated (I’m not sure that Kerry Greenwood’s Phrynne Fisher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney’s novels have international standing? I could, however, be wrong). This is Marvellous Melbourne in all her 1880s glory here, before the 1890s depression blew its cold draught into her streets and houses. As a Melbourne reader with more than a little affection for the town, I enjoyed reading about the Little Bourke Street slums, the somnolent stuffiness of the men-only Melbourne Club, the genteel Powlett Street surroundings of East Melbourne.
The story is typical nineteenth century detective fiction fare: mistaken identities, shameful disgrace, illegitimacy, reputation etc. with the requisite fragrant young lady love-interest, the decent but wronged young man, and the Dickensian hag who holds secrets. I must admit that, as a historian, I found the descriptions of the slums and the cockney accents of the working-class characters the least authentic part of the book. I know that buildings were densely packed into the lanes surrounding Collins and Bourke streets, but I felt that the descriptions and dialects owed too much to Charles Dickens’ foggy London.
[Actually, this has raised quite a question for me about the depiction and reality of working-class life in early urban Australia i.e. 1840s and 1860s. I sense that it should be different from England, given hot weather, dust and the relatively small size of towns surrounded by huge expanses of countryside even in Sydney and Melbourne. I must look more carefully for it. Martin Sullivan looked at it in Men and Women of Port Phillip (my review here) but from memory, it was more an economic and political appraisal rather than an experiential one.]
The book commences with the quite modern touch of a newspaper report and at times combines notional non-fiction elements alongside the standard plot-driven narrative novel. The story moves along at a cracking pace, with a surprise or dangling thread at the end of most chapters. There’s a chuckling, rather condescending omniscient humour that pervades the book, with its observations about Fate and human nature. I enjoyed his observations of people- most especially the desiccated, crackling landlady Mrs Sampson. It’s all brought together with the written death-bed confession and everyone lives happily ever after with the truly deserving maintaining their respectability. It is a nineteenth-century novel after all.
Sue at Whispering Gums also reviewed the book, which has been re-released recently.