Four pre-teen boys struggling to survive without parents might make unlikely detectives. But this is the London of Charles Dickens, roughly the 1840s, and if you're 12 years old and living on your own, you survive by your wits and taking advantage of whatever comes your way.
The Montgomery Murder and The Deadly Fire are the first two in the Victorian London Murder Mystery Series by Cora Harrison. Due to the death of his mother from cholera, twelve-year-old Alfie finds himself head of the family. The family includes Alfie’s younger brother Sammy, who has a beautiful singing voice and is blind, and his two cousins Jack and Tom.
They live in a basement in Bow Street, and life is focused on getting enough money each week for rent and food. The boys sing, perform tricks with their dog Mutsy, run errands, and are not above swiping a loaf of bread (or a bit more than a loaf of bread) and working as pickpockets.
In The Montgomery Murder, Alfie is caught trying to steal a loaf of bread and is hauled off to the police station in Bow Street. Facing prison himself and a disaster for his brother and cousins, Alfie is surprised to be helped by a sympathetic police detective, who seeks Alfie’s help in trying to find out any information at all about a man found murdered, strangled with wire in the notorious St. Giles area of London.
Alfie has seen the man before, and in fact saw him shortly before he was killed. He’s also able to show the detective that the man was not killed while being robbed. The man lived with his family in well-to-do Bedford Square, and it is there where the killer’s trail might lead. Alfie and his family, along with a few friends, are recruited by the detective to keep their eyes open and see what they might learn about the murder.
It’s an exciting story, with the blind Sammy getting kidnaped by the killer, family passions boiling over, and some solid detective work by Alfie and his fellow street urchins.
In The Deadly Fire, the operator of a ragged school (school for poor children) in the St. Giles area dies in a fire that will turn out to be arson. Only Alfie suspects that the fire was deliberately set. He, his brother, and his friends quietly investigate, finding trouble at every turn.
Alfie finds himself running afoul of Mary Robinson, known as “Queen of the Costermongers,” a loan shark who’s particularly unscrupulous and ruthless. She’s a suspect; the dead man had started a broadsheet campaign decrying her activities. So is the dead man’s younger brother, who will inherit his father’s estate now that his brother is dead. Another suspect is a land developer, who wanted the land the ragged school occupied.
Alfie faces the difficulty of his police detective friend being hospitalized with pneumonia, and his replacement more than friends with some of the suspects. But he and his band of street urchins persevere.
These mystery stories for young adults (YA) are well-plotted and well-researched. They’re filled with character “types,” who would have been more than familiar to Dickens and the people of 1840s London. What I particularly like is that these stories speak to and with and not down to the reader. And while they are clearly in the YA genre, they are also fully enjoyable for adults.
Harrison has also published three other YA London mysteries, Murder on Stage, The Body in the Fog, and Death in the Devil’s Den. She is also the other of numerous books for children and young adults and historical novels and mysteries for adults.
Alfie’s world is one of often bare-knuckle struggle, but his knowledge of the streets, his savvy for survival, and his love and care for his brother and cousins make these stories fully pleasurable reads.
Top illustration: The London slums in the 1840s.