A few weeks ago I received a lovely email from the British Library asking if I would be interested in reviewing a couple of books they were publishing. Regular Random Readers will know that this was a very silly question as, obviously, I was and so they duly arrived. I was unaware that the British Library had its own publishing arm which is a severe dereliction of duty as far as I am concerned but I then investigated and found it had lots of rather interesting stuff so do check it out on their website here.
The first book I essayed was Mr Bazalgette's Agent by Leonard Merrick. The author was born in 1864 so was a true Victorian writer and wrote twelve novels though I doubt if many of us have heard of him today. I know I hadn't. He was widely admired by his peers and J M Barrie called him the 'novelist's novelist'. He wrote plays and short stories and many of these were made into films of the 1920s. So no slouch then and I opened the book with anticipation only to find a most interesting introduction by Mike Ashley who tells the reader that 'the book you are holding is both rare and intriguing'. Until this republication is seems that it was almost impossible to locate a copy outside of the major research libraries and this is because Leonard Merrick apparently tried to buy up all the copies he could find and destroyed them. He said that it was because he thought the book was 'terrible'. The introduction then goes on to tell us of other earlier stories featuring a lady detective which Merrick might have used for inspiration and wonders if he felt some guilt at this and thus destroyed the copies. We shall probably never know but it certainly made this reader eager to see what is in the novel.
Miriam Lee is 28 years old, unmarried and has fallen on hard times. She sees an advertisement for private agents and decides to apply. Mr Bazalgette employs women it seems and soon Miriam finds herself on a train to Hamburg chasing down a banker's clerk, Jason Vining, who had forged financial documents which allowed him to acquire £40,000 and has now absconded. Nobody knows where he has gone but it is thought he is in Europe and as he is known to be a person who would get through his stolen money quickly, Miriam and a fellow female detective live in the best European hotels and frequent the casinos and other places where he may be found. They find him but then he does a moonlight flit and they discover he has taken a steamer to South Africa. Undaunted by this turn of events Miriam and companion follow him and end up at the Diamond Fields where Vining, who is now penniless, is intent on mining for diamonds and making his fortune again.
Miriam soon realises she has fallen in love with Jason and is torn in two between her duty to her employer and her love for a fraudster and a thief. What is she to do and what will her decision be? We are left in suspense until the last few pages when an unexpected and surprising twist ties the story up beautifully.
The pleasure in reading this detective story is first, its rarity and discovery of a book that few others will have read. It is also one of the very early books to feature a female detective first published in 1888. However, as mentioned above he might not have been the first as there was a previous heroine featured in a weekly serial in one of the cheap penny dreadfuls, as they were known and then the American equivalent of this publication, the dime novel, also featured a woman of 'rare beauty and intelligence' who occasionally works for a detective agency.
The next pleasure is its pure Victoriana style, written mainly in epistolary form as Miriam writes in her diary and her reports throughout the book. There are also some wonderful passages of purple prose:
"What cowardice, am I mad! My weakness may be imperilling him......I must break the seal and quickly. My darling, I need all my courage, now for you - the enclosure lies before me! I struggle to understand it and I cannot the cipher has escaped my memory, I am going cold as ice 'wait!"
And a lot more like this which I loved.
I refer back to the start of this post when I said that Merrick thought it was 'terrible'. Authors can be hard on their own works, and while this is certainly no literary masterpiece (there is a preponderence of exclamation marks, far too many for me), it has great charm and if you love Victorian writing, as I do, then this is for you. I was reminded of Louise May Alcott's foray into melodramatic gothic tales written in much the same declamatory style. I loved those and I loved Mr Bazalgette's Agent.
I have another gem to review which was sent to me by the British Library but will be posting about that nearer the publication date but do check it out before then in their catalogue. It is the Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay.
The British Library is in the London Borough of Camden and I worked for their library service for many years as did my mother and my sister. In fact, my sister used to work for the British Library in one of their older offices in Store Street in London and was hoping to move into the the new building which is now in the Euston Road. Alas, it fell way behind its schedule and took years to build and she never made it. We still have a family link as my daughter Helen, the historian, did hours of research for her own book there, I have visited it often and so am delighted to have this opportunity to extoll not only its virtues, but now its very own publications.