Season Of Darkness, by Cora Harrison
This is the first novel of two (that I know of) in the Gaslight mystery series set in Victorian London where the author has Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, and their bumbling and incompetent Police sidekick Inspector Fields seeking with varying degrees of effort and success to solve a mystery, along with Sesina, a servant girl who fancies herself a solver of mysteries as well. As one comes to expect from this particular mystery novelist, the mystery is one that is rich in complexity, and the motive easy enough to understand, plenty of false clues even with a relatively small cast of characters, and a satisfying conclusion that plays with the question of identity, and how it is that people can know who they are and what they are owed by life. This book may be considered a sort of hidden princess story, but of a particularly sad kind, in which someone acts as if they were above their station, ends up being truly above the lot in life in which they lived, but where the result is deeply unhappy, even tragic, and complex for a great many people because of the repercussions of what was done. Leave it to an Irish author to explore identity between English and American characters in the Victorian period.
This novel is a short one of about 200 pages but it is no less a compelling one for its short length. The novel begins with a setup where you know something is going wrong, where a beautiful young woman is looking to blackmail a mysterious man about something that relates to her background and which she is keeping secret from everyone. Of course, she ends up dead and being fished out of the river, and as a servant girl there is not a huge degree of official interest in solving the murder as such people are not valued highly. Charles Dickens has a history with her, though, and starts his own investigation, along with a friend of his, Wilkie Collins. The two of them seek to investigate, try to solve the mystery of the background of the servant girl, and deal with various false trails being set by Sesina as well as others, until all of the roads converge on a surprising case of the theft of inheritance and a man unwilling to let his ill-gotten riches escape him.
Where do people belong? How is it that art can imitate life imitating art imitating life as it does in this particular book? This series in particular presents the reader with some obvious difficulties but also pleasures. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are real people, Victorian celebrities even, and the real Inspector Field was a somewhat corrupt and unsettling character who inspired a character in Dickens’ Bleak House, which puts this novel and its successor in a very narrow period of time around the writing and publication of that novel. And the author dwells upon questions of identity. How is that we know and recognize the character of others? What drives people to kill? Where do people truly belong? Do they belong in the status they were born into, or abandoned into, or spent most of their lives in? These are not easy questions to answer, not in our own days where identity is an immensely contentious area, and not in the time in which these novels are set, where the author makes it clear that questions of identity and belonging have always been deeply vexed and complicated, all the more so when people have reasons to hide the truth of what is due to others.