Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Techno-Thrillers Victorian style: “Victorians didn’t have technology”

I was chairing the afternoon panel at CSI Portsmouth in Portsmouth Bookfest. Absorbed in JS Law and Diana Bretherick’s discussion, I was unusually reticent about myself. An audience member demanded in the Q & A, “What are your books about?”

“They’re Victorian techno-thrillers,” I replied.

(I’d only just gathered the idea of techno-thrillers: the gadgetry in Bond; widgets in Bourne. In Van Helsing, I loved the bit where Alun Armstrong as a monk does a Q, equipping Hugh Jackman with all the latest gear. I looked again at my own books. Is the technology central to the plot? You bet it is.)

“But...” the audience member said. “But... the Victorians didn’t have technology.”
That is so many types of wrong that I didn’t even answer.

Assassins & Techno-killers
My first novel Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square starts with a hydraulic crane bursting at Euston Square, as the Metropolitan Line is begun there. The first ever underground railway in the world, plus a (forgotten) London power network that was more effective than electricity up till 1939. What could be more technological?
My hero is a watchmaker. His skills prove crucial in getting him the detective job and at the novel’s climax. The building of the underground entwines with Bazalgette’s sewerage construction, and those two mega-structures are cause and symptom of the societal ills gnawing at the hearts of our characters: Lawless, the policeman with integrity; Skelton, the villain with a heart and brain; Worm, the urchin with two faces; Wardle, the trusty old detective.
Twisted Souls, Twisted Genres
Lawless and the Flowers of Sin was the bastard child of My Secret Life, by ‘Walter’ (greatest pornographic memoir of all time) and The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde.

The pornographic craze, alongside the rise of newspapers, magazines, and books, from shilling shockers through Dickens’ and Wilkie Collins’ bestsellers to high literature, was facilitated by technology: cheaper paper, cheaper printing, cheap books; and wider literacy.

Just as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein uses electricity to explore great questions of the soul, so Stevension draws on the latest medicine, psychology and Darwinian theory to create his soul-twisting anti-hero. Jekyll and Hyde is a technological thriller.

Victorian Genre-Bending
For Lawless & the House of Electricity, I struggled with my editor over the genre. I foregrounded the romantic element as well at the technological, relationships as well as crime. She wanted a crime novel, like the first two. And it is.
But, like the first two (and the sensation novels they stem from), House of Electricity twists and subverts: crime needs a social milieu; there are supernatural hints, Brontëesque class clashes, and of course technology.
In the book you will find electrical buzzers, hydraulic lifts, a pneumatic railway (just like the Victorian system the Post Office has opened to the public).
You will find Duchenne’s magneto-electric apparatus:

The therapeutic effects of these apparatus are reputed, among French medical practitioners, to be beneficial in several classes of maladies, especially cases of paralysis.
With our electric massagers, foot spas and home gyms, you might think this is the age of dodgy devices, but you wouldn’t believe the things Victorians tried.

Pulvermacher’s Electric Corset was just one of the devices urged upon the discerning Victorian to cure a remarkable range of diseases:
   rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, deafness, 
   toothache, paralysis, liver complaints, cramps, 

   spasms, nervous debility, functional maladies

This showed that, from the earliest days of electricity, gadgets and gizmos were developed just as rabidly as today. Interesting that the same ad warns against swindlers: “To ensure against the extortions of the quack fraternity, patients should peruse Pulvermacher’s A Sincere Voice of Warning Against Quacks &c.”
Scientists abound. So do quacks. Did Harness’s Electropathic Belt really cure Weak back, Biliousness, Indigestion, Female Irregularities?

The “very thing” for Ladies. Try one and you will never wear any other kind. For health, comfort and elegance. Don’t delay, send at once. No woman should be without one. These beautiful designed corsets cure
As for Dr Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone, I shall let the ad speak for itself.

Explosions & Fortifications
I set a key scene mid-ocean, on one of the extraordinary forts that lie in the Solent protecting Portsmouth Harbour and the British navy. I took a trip there, informing myself with British Fortification in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries:
I found the Erith gunpowder explosion (October 1864):

This explosion on the Mersey (January 1864):
The Camden derailment (August 1864):
Clerkenwell Prison break (December 1867):

These images of technology and its abuses were worth ten times the newspaper reports, helping the events come to life within the book. (More Pinterest inspirations)
Hydro power, sewer, underground train, forts mid-ocean, electricity.
Now tell me the Victorians didn't have technology.
Lawless & the House of Electricity by William Sutton, third in his series of Lawless mysteries exploring the darker sides of Victorian London, is published by Titan Books.

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