Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick

L_ISBN_9780712357029A sparkling tale of the first lady detective in England, brought back to print by the British Library.

This amusing story was first published in 1888. Ms. Miriam Lea is an engaging and delightful narrator. She is surprisingly sassy given that she is a woman in the late 1800s. Despite being down on her luck, she manages to secure a position as a detective for an agency.

She is soon travelling through the continent and headed to the diamond mines of South Africa to pursue an embezzler. There are many twists and turns in the case but I found myself both amused and a little disappointed by the ending. I suppose it was 1888 after all.

The book is written in diary form, which I usually detest but in this case it worked out quite well and made for a very fast read.

Strangely, Leonard Merrick never wrote another detective novel and went on to buy and destroy all the copies he could find. “It’s a terrible book. It’s the worst thing I ever wrote. I bought them all up and destroyed them. You can’t find any.”

Thankfully he didn’t get quite all of them.

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A history of England and its periods

I used to confuse the order of Elizabethan, Edwardian, Victorian and other periods. Since the periods are obviously important in historical stories, it’s worth having a quick reference or researching this in more detail.

I researched this both online and through reading England and the English by Charles Duff, 1954.

General Overview of Time Periods in Britain

Celtic Invasion c. 2000 BC – About the original peoples we know nothing. The invading Celts were a nomadic people who are thought to be romantic, creative, and not aggressive until backed into a corner.

Roman Britain c. 43–410 – Julius Caesar conquered much of Britain. Warrior Queen Bodica attempted a failed uprising but eventually the Romans departed, having established roads, forts and cities such as Londinium (London).

Anglo-Saxon c. 500–1066 – Essentially defenseless after the Romans, the Britons fell to the organized and effective Vikings. King Arthur, although greatly romanticized, was a general or count who wanted to preserve the Britain he’d known. Battles and bloodshed continued until William the Conqueror.

Norman 1066–1154 – Celtic society had ceased to exist except in small pockets with the rest of Britain under William the Conqueror. His brutal conquest ended with him becoming a king and the beginning of the monarchy we know now.

Plantagenet 1154–1485 – A feudal system emerged with barons controlling lower classes and the Magna Carta was drawn to clarify the rights of barons and the Crown. King Henry II invaded Ireland. The Black Death and famine cut the population in half, then there was a labourer’s revolt of epic proportions.

Tudor 1485–1603 – The most notable Tudor is Henry VIII, whose goal was a strong England able to face any future. He was educated and far-sighted but also despotic and tough. He is most famous for cutting back the Catholic Church’s control of England and marrying 6 women but he made many contributions.

[Elizabethan 1558–1603] – England had an enormous merchant navy and a Royal Navy that defeated the Spanish Armada. Sea-dogs or pirates were often rewarded and approved by Elizabeth I. She was educated, cultured, flirtatious and she embodied the nation’s ideals. Literature and culture flourished under her reign.

Stuart 1603–1714

[Jacobean 1603–1625] – Most notable is the attempted destruction of the King and Parliament by Guy Fawkes, the creation of the King James Bible, and the foundation of the colonies in America. Some of Shakespeare’s significant and dark plays were written during this period.

[Caroline 1625–1649] – Less is readily available for this period, but the growing uneasiness between the King’s Royalists, and the Puritans, who sought to reform Church of England from any Catholic influence.

[(Interregnum) 1649–1660] – Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s military success enabled him to exile Charles I and become England’s Lord Protector. He pushed for the King’s execution to end civil war and he was vicious in both Ireland and Scotland.

[Restoration 1660–1688] – Charles II was restored as rightful king, Cromwell’s corpse dug up and beheaded for treason, and Royalists rewarded. This period ended with James II fleeing a revolution spearheaded by Dutch William of Orange and losing the throne, his daughter Mary crowned along with her husband William.

Georgian 1714–1837 – The four Hanoverian kings of England all named George (that’s not confusing). This was a period of massive growth for the empire, which meant a lot of wars, all won except for the American Revolution. The Regency era (1795-1830) is well described in Jane Austen’s novels. The Industrial Revolution beginning in 1760 also changed daily life dramatically with the new mechanized forms of making clothing and other textiles.

Victorian 1837–1901 – The Victorian era of peace, prosperity and scientific/medical/engineering accomplishments was underpinned by “appalling human misery” of working class and the bloodiness of colonialism.The Victorians are noted for the strait-laced, highly moral (to them) behaviors.

In England, the population doubled from 16 to 30 millions in just fifty years due to medical advances (vaccines) and the turnip that could be grown in winter to feed cattle. But in Ireland, the population fell dramatically after the Great Famine, which heightened hatred and tension with the English. Continued battles were fought in India until in 1876 Queen Victoria was granted the title Empress of India. Queen Victoria made the monarchy both beloved at home and known across the globe.

Edwardian 1901–1914 – The pre-war England is well described by British author Samuel Hynes as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.” The class system was at its strongest and each class knew its position quite well.

But for women, illegal abortion (often local women with crochet hooks, yikes!) was the most common means of birth control, contraceptives were expensive and often failed. Unmarried or widowed mothers suffered most, they were sent to the workhouse and even if they found work elsewhere, their wages were lower than men’s. Suffragettes were causing a stir as they fought for women’s rights.

Meanwhile the shadow known as “The German Menace” was known although many didn’t believe it would come to war. In these wars, Germany and Britain seemed locked in a race as Germany tried to overtake Britain in manufacturing and military.

First World War (the Great War) 1914–1918 – Duff writes “It is difficult for those who were not adults at the time to realize how innocent, simple-minded and gallant that generation of young men was.” They were not given any conditioning for war and they went ignorant into the four-year drawn out trenches of war.

70 million military men across the world were mobilized between the Allies (UK, US, France and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy). In England, women now worked beside men to meet the manufacturing demand, while large portions of the country were serving as hospitals full of convalescing soldiers in their light blue uniform.

The Armistice was signed and on July 19, 1919 a column of nearly 20,000 allied troops marched through London representing the 14 nations who had won the war. But the England of 1918 was exhausted, had spent countless dollars and broken many of the class lines.

Interwar 1918–1939 – Thousands of soldiers were demobbed and women were forced to give up their jobs to them. Shell shock was not well understood and soldiers suffering from it were often treated with cruelty – why couldn’t they just ‘man up’?

The Labour Party, relatively socialist and in favour of the labourers, came into power in 1921 to the horror of the Conservatives. Legislation benefiting education, welfare and unemployment were passed in this time.

Despite appalling losses, the English wanted to “draw a blind on the whole filthy business” and begin anew. There was a slogan of “Brighter London” and there was an effort to create a spirit of gaiety. Victorian morals received a bit of shock at women’s attire (the rising of hemlines and the absence of corsets).

After the slump of Wall Street in 1929, England felt a share by the decrease in wholesale prices and an unemployment crisis. The government used drastic measures that were felt by everyone and was able to avoid borrowing, while the pound steadied even if it did not improve. There was a feeling of depression over much of the country, though the rise of Hitler was not believed by many to be serious. It was the Spanish War of 1936-1938 with Hitler and Mussolini helping the Nationalists that gave an inkling of the shadow to come.

Second World War 1939–1945

Postwar 1945–present


Photo courtesy English Heritage.

England in the 1920s, mysteries and more

As an avid mystery reader, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and many other excellent 1920s mysteries. The “Golden Age” of mysteries is my favorite era. They combine plot driven books that are suspenseful without being terrifying with an intellectual puzzle to be solved and character driven stories that focus on people.

Writing a book in this era requires a great deal of research if you want to create an immersive world. The 1920s is nearly a hundred years ago now. You need to preserve historical accuracy like names, landscape, clothing, social norms, technology, economy, vocabulary and even how they thought based on their age and experience. But while you want your protagonist to be utterly of their time, you also need to balance this with changing world views and norms.

England is difficult when you consider social classes, World War I (the Great War) and colonialism. There were many things changing in a good way like women’s right to vote and worker protection laws from the new Labour Party, but it was also a dark time with another war looming and many still living in abject poverty. Another challenge is that the immediate past of the protagonist (such as their parents’ upbringing or the era they lived in) also plays a part in their beliefs, so I found myself digging into the late 1800’s as well.

While I appreciate the Golden Age novels giving us a stimulating puzzle to enjoy and often a privileged world, they only sometimes explore social injustices. I’ll give examples where I feel they do call for change more than we might realize. But I still feel we owe a debt to those who suffered not to gloss over their pain even as we stay optimistic in a changing world.

I decided to share the research I’ve been doing, which books have been invaluable and thoughts about murder mystery books set in this era. Hopefully this will help anyone interested in the 1920’s in England, writing or reading mysteries, or just general interest in that period.