Tag Archives: historical crime

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback


The Butchered Man – Felix Carswell arrives in Northminster

This is the first chapter of my historical crime novel, The Butchered Man.

Chapter 1

17th January, 1840

Felix Carswell climbed down from the train at Northminster in a giddy, befuddled state brought on by the novel sensation of travelling at twenty miles an hour. It was raining heavily and he was wondering if he should be extravagant and hire a fly or risk a long walk in the rain when he noticed an elegant, low-slung, travelling carriage, drawn by a pair of natty greys. It was painted a distinctive chocolate brown with cream-coloured trim and Felix did not need to look at the coat of arms on the door to know to whom it belonged.

The many-caped footman, who stood by the carriage, caught sight of Felix, opened the door and let down the steps. With the mixture of deference and insolence peculiar to flunkeys he indicated that Felix was to get in. Felix considered walking straight past him but decided it was better to get the business over with, sooner rather than later, so climbed in as he was bid.

“These railways are wonderful things,” said Lord Rothborough, snapping shut the cover of his watch. “One can predict almost to the minute where a man will be.”

There were times when Felix thought it would be better had Lord Rothborough left him to die in the back room of a Parisian bawdy house. This morning was one such.

“Good morning, my Lord,” Felix said and sat down. He had no wish to sit down but he had no choice. Lord Rothborough had him trapped. The footman had already closed the door behind him.

With gloved fingers, Lord Rothborough plucked a paper from the pile of correspondence that was lying on the seat beside him next to his travelling writing slope and the bulging dispatch cases. His heart sinking, Felix recognised his own careless scrawl on it.

“Now,” said Lord Rothborough, “I know young fellows don’t care much for the art of letter writing, but this -” He let out an expressive sigh which would not have disgraced one of his famous amateur performances in the private theatre at Holbroke. “I wonder you took the trouble to write it at all.”

“My Lord, if I might expl-”

“Explain? So you want to explain now, do you? And only when I have taken the trouble to be here to listen? That’s a little dilatory, to say the least. No sir, you may not explain!”

Felix decided he would to get out of the carriage there and then, and moved as if to do so, but Rothborough reached out with his silver topped stick and barred his exit.

“Sit!” he said. He tugged the cord and they set off. “Let us recapitulate,” he went on, holding up the letter. He began to read: “ ‘My Lord, I write to inform you that I have taken a post as police surgeon to the Northminster Constabulary and will be commencing my duties there on 17th January. Your obedient servant, F.J. Carswell MD’. Such elegant economy! Is that the fashion amongst you young medical men? But of course this is not fashion. This is insolence! Nothing more, nothing less. How dare you, sir? I wonder you bothered to write at all. Why did you do that? To taunt me with it? Is that all this is?” Felix was fumbling for words to defend himself against this onslaught but he did not get a chance to use them. Rothborough was just getting into his stride. “How could you take it in to your head to apply for this post without consulting me? Here of all places! You did not think how it would look for me, I suppose. Or perhaps you did?”

“No-one knows me here. I thought…”

“You are pretending to be naive. You know I am well known here. The connection will be made. What were you thinking of?”

“A man in my position must take what he can get and this is a good post. I had no doubts about it whatsoever,” Felix said with as much bravura as he could manage. “The advantages far outweigh any disadvantages.”

“You speak as if you were casting around for crumbs,” said Rothborough, “when that is scarcely the case. I understood that your prospects in Edinburgh were excellent. What has happened? Were you dismissed?” Felix did not answer and of course his silence incriminated him. “That is what this smells of,” said Rothborough, tapping the letter. “What happened? Did Professor Logan dismiss you?”

“I was forced to resign,” Felix said after a long moment. “My situation became very awkward.”

“In what way?”

“We found we were at cross-purposes,” Felix said.

Rothborough narrowed his eyes. “What does that mean?” he said.

“I really would rather not go into this just now -”

“I am sure you would not,” said Rothborough, “but I advise you to overcome your reticence and tell me. After all, you know that I will find out what happened sooner or later.”

Felix looked away and out of the window, as the carriage shuddered along a narrow and winding cobbled street, past ancient half-timbered buildings that might once have been picturesque. But now they were defaced by dirt, neglect and a most extensive rash of paper bills, shrieking and spitting about everything from wild beast shows to quack medicines. “Parker’s Penny Pills. The Poor man’s friend.” More likely his poison, Felix thought.

Northminster was certainly living up to its reputation for ugliness. He had some acquaintance with the filthier pockets of Edinburgh and was not unduly shocked by what he saw. Yet it depressed him that this was what he was condemned to by his folly. It would surely have been better to sign on as surgeon aboard that whaler. But to have done that would have meant hurting his mother even more than he had already done and he had had enough of the reproachful, tear-stained faces of women to last him a lifetime.

“So?” said Rothborough.”

Felix forced himself to begin. “There was a lady.”

“Ah, now, we have it,” said Rothborough, with a great sigh. “Who was she?”

“Professor Logan’s daughter.”

“And no doubt you were a prize puppy and made love to her. Of course! But her dear Papa objected and would not let you make a match of it, considering you to be an insolent whelp? If that is the case, he is not far wrong. And from the look of you, it is the case I think. Yes?”

Felix looked away. He wished it had been as simple as that. It would have been much easier to bear. To be thought of merely insolent would have been something of a relief.

“I take it she is a beauty,” Rothborough said after a long silence.

“Yes,” Felix with as little emotion as he could manage. “Yes, she is.”

“You have had a lucky escape,” said Rothborough. “I am glad that Professor Logan had the sense to put a stop to it. It would not have been a good match. You are far too young to marry and however charming the young person might be, it would have been beneath you, and too much of an elevation for her.”

“There was no difference in rank,” Felix said, pointedly.

“I hope to the heavens you are not nursing some brooding secret engagement or any such nonsense. If you are, and you dare to keep such a thing from me, you will live to regret it, my boy. I hope you understand that?”

“You do not need to worry about that, my lord,” Felix said. “That is not my difficulty. The fact is…” He swallowed and decided he must tell the truth. “Her father did not object.”


“He wanted me to take an interest. He saw me as a prospect. He thought my connections desirable. So he threw us together somewhat and at first, I scarcely knew what he meant by it. She was so charming and sweet, and I could not help but be flattered by it. What man would not?”

“You did not engage yourself to her with his consent?” said Rothborough. “Tell me that is not so, for God’s sake, tell me you did not do that!”

“I thought – I truly believed that…”

“That you loved her?” said Rothborough. There was a silence. “And then you fell out of love.”

“Yes,” said Felix looking across at him. There was little more to be said. He could not improve on the accuracy of the diagnosis.

“And so you asked to be released from your engagement,” Rothborough went on, in the same dry and devastating tone.

“Yes,” Felix said.

“He ought to have horsewhipped you,” said Rothborough. “Did he?”

“No, but he got his pound of flesh,” Felix said.

“How much?”

“Five hundred guineas.”

Rothborough gave a low whistle. “And yet you did not think to write one line to me about this, did you?”

“No my lord, of course not.”

“Of course not?” said Rothborough. “What do you mean by that?”

“How could I?” Felix said.

“Did you not think I would help you?”

“Yes sir, and that is exactly why I did not write!” exclaimed Felix. “I did not require your help. You know how I feel about this. I will not be -”

“What?” said Rothborough.

“I must make my own way. That is what I mean.”

“And a fine job you have done of that so far!” said Rothborough. He folded up the letter and laid it back with the others. “However, what is done, is done. You are here now and we must make the best of it. In fact, I am beginning to think that there is no harm that you should become known here – and for doing something useful. Vernon, the Chief Constable, is by all accounts an excellent fellow. You will be in safe hands here. There will be no dangerous young ladies or ambitious fathers. In fact, I think the whole thing may be turned to our advantage.”

This was the last thing Felix wanted to hear. It was as if he had escaped from one trap only to blunder into another, and he was certain that Rothborough’s expectations of him were much worse than Professor Logan’s. Rothborough did not want five hundred guineas to stop him suing the hide off him. He wanted his soul. It had always been so.

“I trust that appalling item is just for travelling,” Rothborough said at length, giving Felix’s broad brimmed wide-awake hat a savage poke with his stick.

“As a matter of fact, no -” Felix began, but the carriage was now turning into what seemed to be the yard of an inn. They drew up and the moment the footman had set down the step and opened the door, Lord Rothborough, with his customary energy, had jumped out of the carriage. Felix was spared having to defend his hat.

“Major Vernon, I presume?” Felix heard him say. “Good to know you at last, sir.”

“My Lord Rothborough?” came the reply. “This is an unexpected honour!”

“I have Mr Carswell here for you,” said Lord Rothborough. “I found him at the railway station.” He made it sound as if Felix were a stray dog.

Felix reached for his offensive hat and climbed out of the carriage.

He came face to face with a lean-faced man with close-cropped hair, who was dressed in a dark blue frock coat trimmed at the cuffs with silver. But the most striking thing about him was his sharp, cool blue eyes, and for a moment they flashed over towards Lord Rothborough and then back at Felix, noting, he felt sure, the close likeness.

“How do you do, sir?” Felix said, putting out his hand, but avoiding that gaze. He glanced about him instead, taking in his new surroundings. The building struck Felix as a very curious one for its purpose – that of the headquarters of City of Northminster Constabulary. It was clearly very ancient, and looked as if it had been assembled rather than constructed to any sort of plan. A hotch-potch of stone and wood, heavy with open galleries, jutting stories and mullioned windows, it looked to Felix as if it should be in some fanciful painting recreating the splendours of former days.

“Thirty years ago this was one of the great inns of the town,” said Major Vernon, answering Felix’s unspoken question. “The Unicorn by the Castle. You probably remember it, my Lord?”

“The landlord was a Tory and the food was execrable,” said Lord Rothborough.

“This way gentlemen, if you please,” said Major Vernon.

Felix followed Lord Rothborough and Major Vernon across the courtyard and in through a low doorway. They began to climb up a broad but creaky staircase, the posts of which were topped by bare-breasted maidens whose almond-shaped eyes seemed to look slyly at Felix.

“I am trying to persuade my masters on the Watch Committee to find the money to rebuild this place,” Vernon was saying. “For now though it does well enough. It’s very convenient for the castle and the law courts, and the beer cellars make good holding cells. Do come in, gentlemen. Will you have some wine?”

They followed him into his office, a large, plainly furnished room, purposefully hung with large maps of the city and the districts about it, and decorated only by the military flourish of a pair of crossed swords, with their scarlet cords, mounted above the fireplace. It was a room to make a man straighten his back.

“Major Vernon,” Rothborough began, taking command of the room as he always took command of any room, “I will be straight with you. I have had my doubts about this scheme of young Felix’s.”

Must he use my Christian name? thought Felix, gulping down the sherry. He found he was cold and anxious.

“However,” continued Rothborough, “when I realised you were responsible for his appointment, I began to see the sense of it. I’ve heard some excellent reports of your work here, Major, and I’m sure you will be glad to hear that your name is much mentioned in the right places. We have a great need of men like you, Vernon, men with real vision.”

“I wouldn’t lay claim to so much, my Lord. I merely solve problems as they arise. I’m just a simple soldier.”

“Ah, you military men, you make a great deal of your so-called simplicity, don’t you?” said Lord Rothborough. “Of course that was my original plan for Felix – a military career, but the lad would hang out for medicine. And to think, when I was a boy no-one thought medicine a suitable occupation for a gentleman!”

Felix found comfort and distraction by squatting down and making a fuss of the Major’s dog, an amiable white grey-hound who had been sniffing at his toes.

“Yes, this will do very well,” Lord Rothborough went on, “at least for the present.”

“Perhaps,” Felix said, straightening, aware of the Major’s keen eyes upon him, “I might know what my duties are precisely?”

“I’ll leave you to your business, gentlemen,” said Lord Rothborough. “I have a few points I need to explain to my Lord Bishop on the education bill. He seems to wilfully misinterpret my letters – quite surprising for such a great scholar. I shall tell him you are here, Felix, so you will have no excuse not to pay your respects at the palace, will you?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. He must make himself agreeable here, mustn’t he Major? Yes, Felix, I expect you to do your duty in that respect, not for my sake but for your father’s. This city, for all the smoke stacks and bottle factories, is still a great city of God!”

With that he took his leave, though he could not resist another brief exhortation to Felix, this time on the subject of attending Divine Service, a thing which to Felix’s certain knowledge he scarcely did himself. Then as an excruciating coda he insisted on embracing him, only briefly but fiercely enough to leave Felix glowing with mortification.

Thankfully, the Major escorted him down to the carriage, leaving Felix alone to compose himself, save for the company of the sweet-eyed greyhound. He could not decide whether he was a boy delivered to school for the first time or a dead hind sent with Lord Rothborough’s compliments for Major Vernon’s dinner.

The Major returned.

“Sit, won’t you?” he said, indicating the chair opposite his green baize covered writing desk.

Felix hesitated. He felt he should say something and make some sort of excuse or explanation. So he gripped the back of the offered chair and attempted it.

“Whatever Lord Rothborough might imply,” he said, “I mean to stay at least the two years we discussed in our letters.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Vernon with a slight wave of his hand.

“He may make plans for me,” Felix went on, “but they are not my plans.”

“Yes, I quite understand. Now, do sit down, won’t you?”

So Felix did as he was told and felt the Major’s disconcertingly clear eyes on him again. He was glad when the dog padded over and rested its chin on his knees.

“Push her away if she bothers you,” said Vernon.

“She doesn’t at all. What’s she called?”


Felix ruffled her ears and smiled down at her.

“It’s very interesting,” Major Vernon said. “There are some excellent reports here,” he said, tapping a file on the desk which presumably contained the testimonials that Felix had managed, not without some difficulty, to gather from the wreckage as the news that he had jilted Isabella Logan had spread around Edinburgh. “At least of your professional abilities. A gold medal for comparative anatomy. The Syme prize for an outstanding thesis on the variations of structure in the -” he glanced into the file, “the aeortic chambers. Whatever that might be.”

“The inside of the heart,” said Felix. “I was trying to establish the boundaries of what was normal and what might be considered abnormal.”

You spend six months dissecting hearts but you don’t care an iota about mine!” Isabella had sobbed that awful morning, when he had finally found the courage to tell her that he could not go through with it. Every argument he had put up in defence of his monstrous suggestion she demolished with her tears. “You think you know everything about everything but you know nothing. Nothing!” She had been right.

“Might that be considered ambitious?”

“Yes, well, I suppose so,” Felix said, pulling himself back to the present. “Yes. It was. Very.” It had been intended as his first step along the path to scientific glory. He had intended to publish it. He had managed to save some of the money required. He wanted to have full-colour engravings done. It would have been the making of his reputation, a handsomely-bound volume. “Carswell on the Heart.” But he had to give that money to Professor Logan, and then, most painfully of all, ask his father for the balance.

He asked himself then, as he often did, why he could not have lied to her about his feelings. He might be in Edinburgh still, about to be wedded and bedded to a girl whom everyone told him was the prettiest, sweetest girl a man could hope to find. But that would have involved lying to himself, and that was what he could not bring himself to do. Not even for the sake of a brilliant career. And in the long run, it would have hurt her far more. She was suffering now, but it was nothing to how she would suffer to find herself married to man who did not love her. It had been brutal but necessary. And so here he was, in Northminster.

“I received a great many applications for this post, and not one of them had anything to equal your honours, Mr Carswell. I think your are making a great professional sacrifice in choosing to come here. After all, the money isn’t that good, the hours will be irregular and I’ll expect a great deal of you. You won’t have much time or opportunity to build up a private practice and the society here is decidedly unattractive for a man of your age and talents. Yes?” Vernon smiled encouragingly at Felix. “It’s a little mysterious, I think.”

Of course he would ask. It was to be expected.

“Sir, I must be frank with you,” Felix said. “I left Edinburgh because I had to. I made an error of judgement – not medical judgement – but in a personal matter. I should have perhaps mentioned it my letters.”

Vernon held up his hand.

“You need not go into details. That is enough for me to know. I appreciate your frankness. It’s enough to say I have confidence in you professionally. I’d have been a fool not to take you on given the situation here.”

“Which is?” Felix asked.

“When I was appointed it was clear to me that I had to create an institution. From scratch. All we had here was a few old watchmen with lanterns. So what I had to do was make a modern police force to make this city feel safe. I wanted to create a model that other cities might follow. It is of course something of an experiment, and you are part of that experiment.”


“I am taking as my model the regimental system. Of course, some would argue against that, that the police ought in no way to resemble the army. But I know the virtues of the system. It is the best way to bind men together and make them do an unpleasant task. Now in any decent regiment the surgeon is a key officer. He represents in the most tangible way the importance of the physical welfare of the men, which we, as officers, have as an almost sacred responsibility. If you have good surgeon your men are confident. And if he sees to their wives and families too, then their sense of safety and well-being is increased. Of course it’s a benefit in kind for them, an incentive, like the uniform and the boots, but its effect is greater. They feel cared for and that’s important for a working man asked to do a difficult job – and I do demand a great deal of them. However, I had the devil of a job to convince the Watch Committee that we needed to retain a full-time medical man. But I did manage it eventually. Your qualifications impressed them. They liked the thought they were getting a first class Edinburgh man for so little money. But I’m talking too much!” he said. “Let’s get you settled in your quarters.”

He got up and Snow trotted over to his side and leant against him.

“I shall do my best,” said Felix. “I shouldn’t like to ruin an experiment.”

“Good,” said the Major. “Now, I’ve addressed your responsibilities in more detail here,” he said, handing Felix a paper. “You can absorb that at your leisure. But I realise there is something I’ve missed.”

“Yes?” said Felix, glancing over the paper. The Major had immaculate handwriting.

“You must call on the Bishop,” he said. “Or we will both have hell to pay.”

Felix grimaced, folded the paper and put it in his coat pocket.

There was a urgent knock at the door.


“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but you’ve got to come at once. Constable Reever has just found a body in a ditch!”

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