I like a dark, creepy Victorian crime novel — the real doozies – stories so strange and bizarre, nobody’s thought of them yet. The Thing about Thugs by Tabish Khair is a doozy. The Victorian mystery as we know it is turned on its head, so to speak, with a “normal” scientist, Captain William T. Meadows, fixated on phrenology; the study of skulls to determine personality and propensity for crime. The Captain’s travels in India yield a rare head currently attached to Amir Ali, a self-professed Thugee assassin badly in need of a safe, speedy exit, which Meadows is pleased to provide. When Ali arrives in London, suddenly decapitated bodies start cropping up and of course the Thugee is blamed. But where are the heads? You just know the answer will be perfectly horrible/wonderful.
Tim Powers’ Hide Me Among the Graves is another unusual Victorian genre-bender, combining elements of horror, mystery, fantasy and suspense. Only Powers could write a swashbuckling crime story in which a poet/vampire/Nephilim/ghost does battle with the living for the soul of a bride. The book takes up where The Stress of Her Regard left off in 1989, though you don’t have to read that one to get this one. As you enjoy the literary allusions and sly humor that are Powers’ hallmarks, prepare yourself with lots of hot tea, a warm fire and your blankey for when the dark creeps in.
Another shocking tale begins on a dreary 1889 London morning in The Yard by Alex Grecian. Detective Christian Little of the Murder Squad is found dead, crammed into a steamer trunk at Euston Station with his mouth and eyes sewn shut. A cloud of fear hovers over Londoners who cannot trust the police to keep them safe from a very sick killer. And just when you thought things couldn’t get ghastlier, along comes Kate Williams with The Pleasures of Men in which Catherine, new to mid-nineteenth century London, obsesses over news of a serial killer and his victims. Known as The Man of Crows, the killer stuffs his victims’ hair into their mouths in the shape of a beak and brutally slashes their bodies to expose the heart. Catherine begins to identify with the murdered women and their killer until she can no longer distinguish fact from fiction and herself from others.
Set in the New World, the miasma of miserable poverty that pervades Manhattan’s Five Points district in Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham recalls East London’s dark cobbles and criminal atrocities. Timothy Wilde joins the NYPD after fire destroys his prospects and his face. Now he works among starving Irish immigrants driven to depraved extremes. According to Wilde’s informant – a tiny scarecrow of a girl covered in blood – a mass grave in the woods holds the dead bodies of child prostitutes. When a boy’s body is found, spleen cut out, Wilde puts his burgeoning street skills to the test.