“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop” —Gertrude Stein
In 1900, L. Frank Baum published two books. In one of them, he said one must, “… arouse in the observer the cupidity and longing to possess the goods, to marvel at the beauty of the display.” No, he wasn’t talking about an Emerald City located somewhere over the rainbow. As the founder of the National Association of Window Trimmers of America, he published the first book dedicated to the subject in 1900, “The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors,” (which came out the same year as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz“).
Of course, shopkeepers had always displayed their goods. But in the Victorian era, the availability of large plate glass display windows combined with the arrival of the department store to usher in a new function—display as entertainment. The shop window became the new theater, windows to a fantasy world in which the actors were the products and mannequins on display. In The Show Window, a monthly journal edited by Baum, he held out the example of the Vanishing Lady, a window display featuring the seemingly-disembodied head and shoulders of a living young woman who vanishes at intervals only to reappear in a new dress and hat.
As Baum advocated in the first issue of his 1898 magazine, The Show Window, shop owners soon employed “shop gazers” to stand seemingly awestruck in front of displays, encouraging others to stop and look, and giving rise to the new phrase window shopping.
And what were they shopping for? What was on offer was no longer individual goods for sale, but a fantasy world which offered viewers the chance to join. They didn’t even have to ride a twister over a rainbow to get there because all the pieces were available (at most reasonable prices) just inside the doors of the store.
The display window’s vision of a Victorian middle class fantasy world becomes the setting for murder in Carol Hedges’ new mystery, Wonders & Wickedness, book 5 in her Victorian Detective series.
Wonders & Wickedness (The Victorian Detectives Book 5 ) by Carol Hedges
1864 marks the arrival of a brand new department store right in the shopping heart of Oxford Street. What owner John Gould does not expect, is the presence of a dead man in one of his display windows. How did he get there? And why has Gould’s store been picked out as a murder location?
Meanwhile Sir Hugh and Lady Meriel Wynward are not expecting to hear from their daughter Sybella, who died in a railway accident two years ago. So when a letter written in her hand arrives unexpectedly, on what would have been her eighteenth birthday, it throws them into turmoil. What is going on?
Bleak expectations dog the progress of Stride and Cully ,two of Scotland Yard’s finest detectives , as they embark upon their most complex case so far. The twists and turns of the investigation will lead them into a murky mire of murder and blackmail, and the strange dark underground world of Victorian spiritualism.
Book Title: Wonders & Wickedness (The Victorian Detectives Book 5)
Author: Carol Hedges
Genre: Victorian Detective
Length: 209 pages
Publisher: Little G Books; 1 edition (20 Aug. 2017)
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My Review: 5 stars out of 5
Quick… What’s your first image of Victorian London? Impenetrable fog, friendly bobbies and Scotland Yard, the bells of St. Pauls, the river Thames, an infallible detective on Baker Street and his posse of street urchin “Irregulars”? Or perhaps it’s Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, or any of Charles Dickens’ unforgettable characters? In her latest Victorian Detective novel, Wonders & Wickedness, author Carol Hedges pays homage to all these and more.
The story seems at first as though it came straight from the pages of Dickens himself. In fact, the Victorian London of 1864 is itself one of the supporting characters, introduced by its iconic fog. “Fog finds its way up from the river and down from the sky, filtering like a melodramatic ghost through cracks and crevices. Tendrils of fog slip in around shutters, sliding into lighted rooms, where they make the candles crackle.” London’s fog obscures scenes and characters, but it also connects all of them.
As the fog blankets London, we meet Mr. Gould, an enterprising Victorian gentleman on the eve of opening his brand new department store, complete with expansive plate glass display windows carefully composed to present an irresistible version of middle class Victorian life—or at least the pieces of it sold there (“Never beaten on price”). But when he arrives for the grand opening, things don’t go according to plan.
He remembers the finished window clearly. It was a masterpiece. What he does not remember is a shirt-sleeved man sitting at the foot of the table, his head face down upon the oval mahogany dining table. He is clutching a carving knife in one outstretched hand, and his blood has stained the white damask table cloth bright crimson.
If this were the classic detective story later regulated by Agatha Christie or the other members of the British Detection Club, there would be a main crime to solve plus a secondary mystery, perhaps with a bit of romantic side interest. But in author Hedges’ tongue-firmly-in-cheek homage to Charles Dickens—whose numerous intersecting plots wandered far and wide, stopping to wave in surprised greeting when they happened to meet—the murdered man has to await the attentions of detectives Stride and Cully. Meanwhile the wonderfully annoying Rancid Cretney lodges his daily complaint about his noisy neighbors, a bereaved aristocratic mother consults psychics for messages from her lost child, an amateur alchemist and his greedy apprentices attempt to turn metal into gold, a wronged wife still grieves for her lost baby, a (former) urchin investigates the mysterious reappearance of the dress worn by his dead sweetheart, and the London fog wraps everything.
I’ve said it before… Carol Hedges writes better Dickens than Charles Dickens. But if she dutifully goes down the list of Dickensian tropes and Victorian themes, she is equally thorough in subverting each. Thus each of the seemingly unrelated story lines rush toward a straightforward goal. Dickensian-style coincidences verging on divine intervention that allow orphans to discover rich and loving relatives are reinterpreted here to be the results of human greed and self-deception.
Where Charles Dickens’ social conscience raised the image of starving children and abused women, he would usually choose the ones who would be miraculously saved from those who came from “good” families, their salvation at the hands of benevolent (and prosperous) members of the middle or upper classes. In Carol Hedges’ London, however, most of the abuse is at upper class hands, while the saving comes from the working classes, such as Lillith Marks, former prostitute and now a businesswoman who owns a small chain of tea shops. Part of Carol Hedges genius as a writer is the way she builds the world of Victorian London until, as a supporting character, London itself offers comments.
Here, ladies of the ‘soiled dove’ variety rent places by the night, selling their bodies to men who fancy their company. Also from these dingy fetid attic rooms come the beautiful hand-stitched ball gowns for rich young ladies selling their future to men who fancy a well-dowried wife. Same game, but with different rules, more money and better clothing.
Wonders & Wickedness is, in fact, entirely made up of supporting characters, loosely connected by Scotland Yard’s two detectives, Detective Inspector Leo Stride and Detective Sergeant Jack Cully. As policing professionals, detectives are relatively new but already Stride is buried by the paperwork demands of his position, exacerbated by further struggles with his subordinates’ lack of education—“…in the constables’ day room at Scotland Yard, where Jack Cully is inducting two of the newest recruits into the mysteries of punctuation. He has just about managed to achieve commas…”
But the true bane of Stride’s existence is the ubiquitous Rancid Cretney, who waylays the inspector on a regular basis to lodge complaints about his neighbors. Rancid was, frankly, one of my favorite characters, from his coat, “…a tweed jacket that has seen better days but never participated in them,” to his “slightly hard of thinking” mental processes. I especially loved the fact that Rancid is actually correct. The neighbors whose nocturnal noises are so disturbing, do in fact end up causing a huge tragedy—an entire storyline with a full cast of deliciously well-rounded characters whose sole purpose is to place one character in exactly the right place to collide with another, providing Detective Stride with a solution to his murder investigation even as he remains blissfully unaware of the conclusion to Rancid Cretney’s complaints. (I take consolation in the twin thoughts that Cretney never understands what has happened either, and that he will soon find another topic with which to continue ambushing Detective Stride.)
The book is full of these wonderful supporting characters, each lovingly well-rounded and developed. For example, the self-satisfied department store owner John Gould’s expensive black beaver top hat and tailored frock coat are accompanied by “…a rather awful yellow waistcoat with red erysipelas spots”. (Yes, I had to that up too, and was rewarded with the information that erysipelas is a skin disease that afflicts both people and pigs.)
There are other characters equally well-drawn, their individual lives caught up in separate story lines which—with the assistance of coincidence and a few nudges from Stride and Cully—eventually resolve. I loved that most of the stories revolve around ordinary people and the ways they go about building better lives for themselves and each other. As Detective Jack Cully says, “Sometimes, maybe when we least expect it, wonderful things can happen. Things that will change our lives for the better.”
Although he undoubtedly would have used several paragraphs in the attempt, Dickens couldn’t have said it better.