Book reviews by Steve Earles: October 2017

History, medical science, detection and crime

Digging in the Dark: A History of the Yorkshire Resurrectionists

Written by Ben Johnson

Published by Pen & Sword History

The progress of medical research depended on a supply of bodies for surgeons to learn their skills from in 18th and 19th-century England. The amount of legally proscribed bodies was extremely limited, being confined to executed felons. The shortfall was supplied by the Resurrectionists, criminals that stole bodies to sell to surgeons and anatomists so they could learn their trade.

This well-written and gripping book focuses on the Resurrectionist trade as practiced in Yorkshire. Excellently researched and presented, Digging in the Dark gives a historical perspective to the actions of those involved, as well as including many tales of bodies stolen and the consequences. In a world where people believed their bodies needed to be whole for Judgment Day when the dead would rise, body-snatching was a very serious business indeed.

Johnson has a Dickensian talent for telling a tale and this book would form the basis for a fine documentary.

Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes

Written by Michael Sims

Published by Bloomsbury

Sherlock Holmes must be, without doubt, the most famous fictional detective of all time (in fact, so much so that there are those who think he is real, and address letters to him to 221B Baker St!). His creator Arthur Conan Doyle is almost as famous, and in this fascinating book we see how Doyle created Holmes, and this story is as fascinating as any of the great detective’s adventures.

When he was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle was taught by a certain Dr. Joseph Bell. It was Bell that taught Doyle the value of observation, how people’s behaviour, gait, mode of speech, way of dressing, etc. revealed their true character and innermost secrets. As Kurt Vonnegut memorably wrote: ‘We are who we pretend to be.’ So, despite, training to be a surgeon, Conan Doyle was also learning the skills that would enable him to create the Great Detective and the Good Doctor, and indeed the detective novel as we know it today.

Arthur Conan Doyle had a hard upbringing, and he did well to escape it. All in all this is a tale worth telling, another that would form the basis for an excellent documentary. Sims is a great storyteller and has done his subject proud.

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber

Written by Christopher Fowler

Published by Bantam Press

Over the years I’ve had a great deal of pleasure reading Christopher Fowler’s stories. This is the fourteenth novel in Fowler’s series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May.

Bryant and May are members of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. Imagine if you will, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as detectives, and you are part, but by no means all, of the way there.

I won’t spoil too much of the plot for the readers. A woman walking a dog is murdered, but the garden she was walking the dog in was locked with no way for the killer to get in or out, and the dog has disappeared. This is only the tip of a very bizarre iceberg; others are missing, and of course, the killer may strike again.

Psychogeography (see the fine ‘Off the Map’ by Alistair Bonnet or ‘London Under’ by Peter Ackroyd for more on hidden London) plays a big part in this novel (as it did in an excellent prior Bryant and May tale ‘The Water Room’). London’s secret places are as much a part of Fowler’s impressive body-of-work as any of his equally well-wrought characters. In this case, Wild Chambers are London’s park and gardens, and there are more than you might imagine.

I’ve always felt it criminal that Fowler’s work is not more widely known. His research is impeccable, his plotting is up there with Agatha Christie, and his characters are superb. He is, like the aforementioned Peter Ackroyd, a great observer of the world and also of the history of the environments he writes about. The history is the foundation this world is based upon, an urban archaeology giving his tales a very special quality; and above all, and most importantly, Fowler always writes from the heart and produces a cracking read that is of its time and yet timeless.

I have said this in previous reviews, and since it has not yet happened, I feel I can say it again – Bryant and May truly deserve their own TV series.

In the meantime, please read this splendid tome and catch up on the previous ones.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (