Not to be confused with Assassin’s Creed!
For some reason, author Carol Hedges doesn’t enjoy having her fans directed to video games when they’re looking for her witty Victorian police procedural mysteries. Before its release, I reviewed book four of her Victorian Murder Mystery: Stride & Cully series here. But now it’s got a great new title—Rack and Ruin— on its properly Victorian cover, and the same terrific story that would have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle muttering “Elementary!” while sending Mr. Dickens to sob onto Tiny Tim’s shoulder. And it’s so much fun that I’m posting this review again for anyone looking for a humor-laced, character-driven Victorian mystery.
Why Carol Hedges writes better Dickens than Charles Dickens
Rack and Ruin (Victorian Murder Mystery: Stride & Cully Book 4) by Carol Hedges
The city is in the grip of railway mania when the gruesome discovery of several infant corpses in an abandoned house forces Inspector Lachlan Greig of A Division, Bow Street Police Office and his men to enter the dark and horrific world of baby farming. It will take all Greig’s skill and ingenuity to track down the evil perpetrators and get justice for the murdered innocents.
Meanwhile two school friends Letitia and Daisy stand side by side on the threshold of womanhood. One longs for marriage to a handsome man The other craves entry to higher education. Will their dreams come true, or will their lives be shattered into little pieces by the tragic and unexpected events that are about to overtake them?
Hope meets horror, and Parliament is threatened by anarchists in this rumbustious fourth Victorian crime novel, set once again amongst the dangerous twisting alleyways and gaslit thoroughfares of 1860s London.
My Review: 5 stars out of 5
Even though I’m looking over my shoulder in case someone from the University of Chicago is standing there demanding the return of my English Lit degree, I have to admit it: I don’t like Dickens. Or rather, I like everything about his books except the writing. I love his subjects, the tropes he uses and even invents. But I’m in luck! Carol Hedges, in her wonderful Victorian detective series, channels the most Dickensian of tropes without the overly sentimental, I-get-paid-by-the-word-so-I-never-use-one-where-six-would-do Dickensian mush. Consider the writing in her latest book in the Victorian Murder Mystery series:
Priggish: In Dickens, the writing is an over the top mix of sentiment and satire, steeped in Victorian melodrama and sanctimonious prudishness. Author Hedges pares back the language to make every word count, while mixing in a welcome dose of humor. “It is much too early for urgent reports, but Greig begins to read it, silently tutting at the absence of paragraphing. As usual, the comma has looked in the face of the writer and decided not to disturb him.”
- Emotional: Dickens’ characters and writing are constantly bouncing between narrowly suspicious and bizarrely credulous, making them seem shallow and flat. Hedges’ characters come complete with backstories that inform and drive their actions. Daisy Lawton, the beautiful young girl about to make her debut into Victorian society, could have been as one-dimensional as Lucie in Tale of Two Cities. Instead she has the conviction of friendship, and the example of her parents’ marriage to give depth to her character. Even better, despite clues and speculation on what drives Inspector Grieg, his backstory isn’t revealed until the end of the book.
He’s a single man. No children. But the Bow Street sergeants say he’s like a terrier after a rat up a drainpipe. Absolutely determined to catch these people, whatever it takes.
- Social Critic: Dickens didn’t shy away from pointing out social issues, although his writing became increasingly dark as he realized that social woes such as poverty and child abuse were immune to his critique. It’s true that Carol Hedges has the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, but she uses that to take on the particularly difficult Victorian crime of baby farming, one which was virtually invisible to Londoners at the time, even though they routinely came across the corpses of children who had died of abuse or neglect. Rack and Ruin’s Inspector Grieg muses, “He regards it as deeply ironic that there are laws against mistreating animals, strict licensing laws for the numerous cow-keepers who supply the city with fresh milk, but not a single law to safeguard the lives of children.”
- Twisty Plots: Probably as a result of being initially published as serials—the soap operas of his day—Dickensian casts are huge, plots convoluted, and plot twists rely heavily on contrived coincidences. This was lampshaded by Oscar Wilde in his play, The Importance of Being Ernest, which earnestly—sorry, I couldn’t resist—entreats, “Now produce your explanation and pray make it improbable.” But this is where Carol Hedges comes into her own. Without abandoning the properly Victorian tone, her plots involve lots of characters who are constantly running into each other as they pursue goals ranging from apprehending baby murderers, to making a socially acceptable marriage, to education for women, to blowing up Parliament. Although Rack and Ruin, like all books in this series, works as a standalone, it’s fun to welcome old friends like detectives Stride and Cully, and Cully’s wife Emily, while each has a role to play here.
The descriptions of 1863 London are wonderful, especially as it contrasts the idyllic London of the upper and middle classes with the London being reshaped by the industrial revolution.
It is the month of May, and the city is in full bloom. Green leaves unfurl, yellow celandines peep from their lowly beds. Violets beckon coyly. Pink frothy waterfalls of blossom cascade from park cherry trees. Birds and bees go about the purposes for which they were created and everywhere from crook to cranny, in garden bed of bow pot warmth returns and nature reasserts itself in song, hum, bud and flower.
Here there is only the shrill roar of escaping steam, the groans of machines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface, the blasts of explosives, and the clack of pumping devices as the future arrives in lines of steel rails and a thundering in the blood.
I really can’t say enough good things about this book and the whole series. If you want a great detective story, beautifully detailed within its historical context, with a well-rounded supporting cast, I recommend Rack and Ruin as well as the earlier books in this series. The pace accelerates to a satisfying conclusion, while the descriptions of London, Victorian language (frowsty?), and society at various levels is pure entertainment.
***I received this book for free from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***
Book Title: Rack and Ruin (Victorian Murder Mystery: Stride & Cully Book 4)
Author: Carol Hedges
Genre: Victorian Detective
Length: 241 pages
Release Date: November 13, 2016
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