|Charles Dickens Museum|
A former journalist and graduate from Humber College's School for Writers, Tracy L. Ward has been hard at work developing her favourite protagonist, Peter Ainsley, and chronicling his adventures as a morgue surgeon in Victorian England. Learn more about Tracy and her books at her website.
Lost in London: Setting the Scene
When I set out to write my Victorian morgue mystery series, Marshall House Mysteries, there was only one city in the world that could do it justice: London. With its cobblestone alleys, gas-lit streets and fog ridden nights, London has long been a setting for writers of the mysterious and supernatural. It seemed only fitting that Dr. Peter Ainsley, a morgue surgeon tracking down all manner of criminals, using the burgeoning science of forensics, should work and live there.
Today London is a frantic city with a web of criss-crossing transit systems including buses, river taxis and the famous tube. Each day an army of commuters file into the city from far flung suburbs, further contributing to the hustle and bustle of city life. Its skyline is a mixture of buildings old and new with a few notable landmarks like Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the architectural marvel of St. Mary Axe.
Despite a number of modern conventions that would hint otherwise, London still holds a lot of charm of yesteryear. There are a few hidden gems not so easily found by the everyday tourist, but if you are an unrepentant history fiend like I am, these places are non-negotiable when it comes to your sightseeing list.
If you are tickled by dark Victorian tales and enjoy the look and feel of old burial grounds, then Highgate Cemetery is a must. Filled with stone architecture and accents only the death-obsessed Victorians could provide, this off-the-beaten-path tourist site will have you constantly reaching for your camera. The Victorians enjoyed elaborate funerals and often equated their cost with how much their family loved the deceased in life. Nowhere is this more evident that at Highgate, one of London’s Magnificent Seven, a group of seven historical cemeteries scattered throughout the various neighbourhoods of the city. The east side of the cemetery is open every day for free-ranging, but the west side is only available via tours which must be pre-booked.
Another five-star site is the Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret, an attic space once reserved for medical students who would gather along the amphitheatre style railings to oversee the dissection of a human cadaver. These lectures were performed as a supplement to the medical training students would receive in the hospitals and were quite rare after Britain outlawed the use of purchased bodies (procured from destitute families or nefarious entrepreneurs like Scotland’s famous Burke and Hare). The theatre was also where medical student could oversee surgical procedures facilitated by the large skylight overhead to ensure maximum light.
This is a small museum, but it sure does pack a punch. On display is a variety of Victorian obstetric tools (ouch!), nursing implements, scientific oddities and an assortment of ‘natural’ remedies. The space is high above a historic church and the only way to get there is by a narrow, winding staircase with rope railing. It’s a tight squeeze complete with rickety wooden stairs constructed at a very steep incline, which only further adds to the atmosphere of the place. Unfortunately, there is no wheelchair access.
Another site that greatly contributed to my research was the Charles Dickens Museum in Camden Borough. Already a well-known author by the time he moved his family there, the building is the only one remaining of Dickens’ London houses. The museum is displayed as it would have been during Dickens’ residence and includes his desk and a number of handwritten notes pertaining to his books. This museum offered me great insight into a typical layout of a Georgian terrace home including a kitchen in the basement and the layout of servants rooms (Dickens was fortunate enough to have two or three household helpers). When describing a room in my novels I often use my memories and photographs of this museum to guide me, though sometimes I deviate slightly, but that’s okay. I use Dickens’ home as a starting point and imagine from there.
As an author, I am very fortunate to have chosen a city with so many links to its past that continue to delight visitors today. Visiting these places gave me a real insight into the architecture, street layout and culture of London, one of the oldest cities in the world.
Prayers for the Dying
Dr. Peter Ainsley knew it was only a matter of time before London claims another murder victim, but this time the body is discovered tied to a lamppost four doors down from the house Ainsley shares with his sister and their bedridden father. The day the body is discovered, a maid of their house and Ainsley’s lover, Julia Kemp, fails to return home from errands in the city.
Convinced the body found in Belgravia and Julia’s disappearance are related, Ainsley follows leads that point him to an infamous bookman, Thaddeus Calvin, known as much for manipulating boxing outcomes as he is for his violent temper. Fiercely protected by the neighbourhood he extorts, Thaddeus is like a ghost, so deeply feared even Scotland Yard is unable to charge him for his crimes.
When another young woman’s body, a housemaid like Julia, is discovered floating in the river, Ainsley hastens his desperate search to discover Julia’s whereabouts before she, too, becomes just another murder victim found in the Thames.