My Victorian mysteries, featuring young Australian widow, Charlotte Richmond, are conveniently set in the middle of the nineteenth century – 1858 to be precise – which means that I don’t need to worry about DNA and tissue sampling or any of the other arcane rites that modern day policing involves. This is a terrific bonus. I like to read a good juicy murder mystery with lots of detail as much as anyone but I don’t want to write one, partly because I’m pretty idle and also because I feel much more at home in Charlotte’s mid-Victorian Hampshire.
opens a few days after a particularly brutal and apparently random murder that has set the countryside talking. Shortly afterwards Charlotte becomes aware of several disturbing and puzzling events which are quickly followed by another death.
Forensic pathology has a long history in this country. In 1836 an Act was passed giving coroners the power to order a doctor to attend and inquest and perform an autopsy but as the first death in my book was witnessed by someone of impeccable respectability, the verdict is cut and dried and there is no need to order an autopsy. It doesn’t occur to anyone that a witness of impeccable respectability might be mistaken…
Fingerprinting has also been around for a surprisingly long time as this interesting article explains: http://onin.com/fp/fphistory.html but it wasn’t until 1901 that The Fingerprint Branch at New Scotland Yard was created, a convenient forty plus years after my mystery. So, no fingerprints then, and definitely no tissue sampling or any of the other tricky stuff and unless you’re seriously into herbs, etc, none of the brilliant detective work done by Brother Cadfael.
When it comes to my contemporary mysteries featuring Harriet Quigley and her sidekick, the Reverend Sam Hathaway, I’ve managed so far to keep the forensics in the background. Clearly the police have to be involved but I haven’t yet needed to get involved in the nitty gritty of modern detective work, thank goodness.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this rambling chronicle, a cosy mystery story is in many ways a fairy tale or a mediaeval morality play, in which Good will triumph over Evil and the wicked will receive the punishment they deserve. This gives the writer a lot of scope regarding forensics or the lack of. In Midsomer Murders they pay lip service to the pathology lab but let the bodies pile up in a way that would never happen in real life. The thing is though, we all know it’s not real life anyway, and that’s the joy of the whole charming, picturesque nonsense.
I devoutly hope I can continue getting away without delving into serious pathology and my two heroines are specifically designed to help me in this aim. Charlotte and Harriet are both excellent judges of character having served their detection apprenticeships by (1) Charlotte spending much of her life running away from the law in the train of her charming but erratic stepfather, and( 2) Harriet having spent a lifetime as a school mistress when she had ample opportunity of observing humanity in all its many shades. By making them both clever like this I solved quite a few of the problems inherent in the detection process – the only trouble is that I find it quite hard to keep up with them much of the time!