A few weeks back a friend and I went to see the new movie Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) is starring in, a horror movie titled The Woman in Black (based on novel by Susan Hill). It had been ages since I saw a movie in the theater, and I enjoyed it, even though it was so-so. But man, that Victorian age. Talk about an era made for ghost and horror stories: everyone's wearing black; pollution in London and England was terrible; and they made some of the world's creepiest wind-up toys, evidently.
So it was a pleasure to go to the library not long thereafter and find Kate Colquhoun's historical true crime thriller Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing waiting for me. It tells the story of the murder of a respectable City of London businessman, Thomas Briggs, the investigation of the crime, and the chase and apprehension of the prime suspect, a German expat named Franz Muller.
The book is divided into three parts: a description of the crime; the investigation of Muller (which included several detectives and witnesses following him across the ocean to America); and Muller's trial. I wouldn't say it's a great book--it dragged a bit in parts--but it was still sufficiently interesting to keep me reading until the end. And of course, who can say no to that good old Victorian atmosphere:
"The sun was low and swallows wheeled in the sky as the banker alighted from his omnibus to walk back through the City's stone warrens. Above him, the thin sliver of a bright new moon pulsed from between the clouds. The sounds of the metropolis had thinned. Passing under the great clock on the facade of Fenchurch Street Station and into the station with its modern vaulted roof, he nodded to the newsvendor. Eating his supper on a stool near the booking office, the ticket collector Thomas Fishbourne looked up as Briggs touched him on the shoulder and said goodnight. Alone, the old man mounted the stairs to the platforms, his empty black bag in one hand and his ivory-knobbed cane in the other." (p. 17.)
Rail travel! Stations called Fenchurch Street! Omnibuses! Old men carrying ivory-knobbed canes! It's the details that make this one interesting (I was going to say "fun" but that doesn't seem like the right word) and thought-provoking: imagine traveling on train cars that weren't connected to one another by doors and in which you had no way of alerting anyone to a problem (which is how early train cars in Britain were, evidently). Imagine a world before the telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean, when the detectives had no way to alert anyone in America that they needed someone apprehended as he got off a ship in New York. Wild stuff.