The Blood

by E.S. Thomson

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

Third in the Jem Flockhart mystery series, The Blood is set in the mid-1800s in the filthy, poverty-ridden streets near the London docks and on board a floating seamen's hospital whose "scrofulous flanks" are "blotched with patches of mould and scabrous with rude repairs." Known as "the Blood and Fleas" or just "the Blood," the old ship attracts physicians eager to study the tropical diseases and parasites attacking sailors who have traveled the world. 

Jem receives a note from John Aberlady, the ship's apothecary, that urges, "Come quickly, or all is lost." Unfortunately, it was misaddressed and arrives almost a week late. As a fellow apothecary, Jem has little trouble getting permission to board the ship―clutching a "rope banister as brown and sticky as if it had been fashioned from chewed tobacco"―and search the quarters of the now-missing Aberlady. Clues abound, but the more Jem learns, the more puzzling the mystery grows.  

For people without wealth or professional status, Victorian London could be a nasty place. Its damp, narrow streets and decaying buildings are described with the textured, lingering vividness another author might devote to a debutante's ball gown. The characters who people it are described with clear-eyed sympathy. 

A large port-wine birthmark across the face is not the only thing that makes Jem unusual; readers will discover this within the first chapter, but I won't tell here. Suffice it to say, Jem has a deep understanding of the difficulties faced by the poor, the unattractive, the exploited, and all who are too different in one way or another to be accepted.

The most implausible events in this novel are the most thoroughly grounded in research. And if the genre of the "Jem Flockhart" mysteries verges on horror, the supernatural never enters into them. Jem's courage, kindness and intelligence make the character a worthy guide through a world that, just perhaps, is a little too close to our own for comfort. (2018; 375 pages including an author's note with a bibliography of source material)

More about The Blood at Powell's Books or The Book Depository

Other mysteries set in Victorian London:

Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson (2016), #1 in the Jem Flockhart mystery series. See review or more info at the Book Depository.

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd (2012; titled The Solitary House in the U.S.), a mystery spin-off from the Dickens novel Bleak House. See review or more info at the Book Depository.

A Christmas Promise by Anne Perry (2009), about a girl helping a younger girl find a donkey cart that belonged to her murdered uncle, a rag-and-bones man; #7 in the Christmas series. See review or more info at Amazon

Nonfiction about the history of London, its poor and its medicine:

From the Greenwich Hulks to Old St. Pancras: A History of Tropical Diseases in London by G.C. Cook (1992). More info

The Knife Man by Wendy Moore (2005). More info

The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes by Henry Mayhew (1861). More info


Dreadnought Seaman's Hospital, introduction to an online database for patients registered in this floating Hospital from 1826-1930

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century Europe

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