I read this book because I love all forms of historical fiction and most especially mysteries. I really looked forward to reading it because it was highly recommended by my boss who is also a historical fiction fan. A Metropolitan Murder is one of the early books by Lee Jackson, a well known expert on Victorian times. He has his own website on the topic and has won a major award in Crime Fiction for his first book. I was really looking forward to reading not just this book but all his books since he seemed to be the perfect person to write books to my taste. Sadly, it was not to be.
The book started out really well with the discovery of the body of a 'fallen woman' on the newly built Metropolitan underground line. There are no witnesses to the murder and the young man who discovered her has sprinted off into the London night before anyone can ask him any questions. He has left behind a notebook containing details of his wanderings in the seedy 'underworld' of London, the London of gin dens, fallen women, rogues and ruffians. Oliver Twist's world really. Is he an upper class stalker of poor women? Jack the Ripper part deux? A journalist seeking a story. The police determine to find him but the exceptionally boring, obtuse and caricatures Inspector Webb cannot fathom how to do it. But not to worry because Lee Jackson doesn't believe in the normal mystery technique of having one person slowly uncover clues until it all comes together. The police have a minimal role in the novel, which is mainly occupied by the lives of the White family - Agnes the battle worn lady of the night and her two daughters, Lizzie who is following in her footsteps even though she is married to the ruffian Tom Hunt and Clara who has been rescued by a charitable home for fallen women and given a job as a housemaid in the home of one of its directors. How is this family linked to the death in the first chapter? Well, if you read this book you will find out but I'm almost tempted to tell you so that you are not forced to do it.
The trouble with this book is that the writer is far more interested in telling you about life on the street in the Victorian age than in telling you a gripping story about a murder. What he does, he doesn't do badly but because it is so loose and unfocussed, I lost interest less than halfway through. None of the characters are well fleshed out and I didn't feel even a twinge of sadness when they died - as thankfully, many of them do, thus avoiding a tedious courtroom scene! The central character Clara White is the least sympathetic character I have ever read and behaves like a robot. The speech is stilted and the potentially interesting character of Henry Cotton is so caricatured and stiffly written that I lost all interest not only in him but in the concept he represents. The mystery itself, when the author spares some attention to it is not very challenging and explained in about three sentences at the end. For a historical murder fiction, the murder and the fiction elements are very poor, and the historical accuracy is not enough to compensate.