A cool review

Murder at Old St. Thomas's, a "richly developed historical mystery"So delighted with this Critic’s Report of my book from BookLife Prize, I just had to share. So grateful it’s called a “richly developed historical mystery”. I’ve never had a reviewer understand exactly what I was doing!

Title: Murder at Old St. Thomas’s

Author: Lisa M. Lane

Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Thriller

Audience: Adult

Word Count: 76691


Plot/Idea: Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is a richly developed historical mystery filled with fascinating period details, including those surrounding the medical profession, theatrical productions of the era, and societal conflicts.

Prose: Lane’s prose is layered, immersive, and immediately transports readers to nineteenth century London. The police procedural aspects of the story are carefully constructed and finely detailed.

Originality: Lane’s novel readily calls to mind works of classic mystery, while allowing the events, atmosphere, and characters to fully resonate with modern readers. 

Character/Execution: The story’s many characters range from doctors to nurses to apothecaries to actors to an extremely intelligent and observant 12-year-old boy. Lane creates a complex and decidedly unlikable character in the novel’s victim, effectively establishing early on the number of potential suspects. While the Dickensian cast may overwhelm readers, Lane brings them each to life. References to historical figures provides verisimilitude and context, while both central players and peripheral ones add to the splendor of the world Lane creates. 


  • Plot/Idea: 9
  • Originality: 9
  • Prose: 9
  • Character/Execution: 9
  • Overall: 9.00

Report Submitted: June 5, 2023

Stumbling upon another woman editor

Skimming the internet for photos of Victorian women, I came upon one I was quite taken with, of a Lady Welby, Victoria Stuart-Wortley. It was the right era, 1859 or so, and she’s wearing a crinoline with luxurious dress fabric and signs of wealth.

Miss Victoria Stuart-Wortley, later Victoria, Lady Welby (1837-1912), Royal Collection Trust

Usually such aristocratic women don’t interest me very much, except that I had never heard of her. A historian’s curiosity wants to know! Turns out she was Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria for awhile, and educated herself to become a philosopher, musician, and artist after she had become a mother of three. There’s ambition for you.

Searching some more, I came upon a Wikipedia page, short but informative, about her mother: Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley. Her image is romantic even for a romantic age.

Lady Emmeline Charlotte Elizabeth Stuart-Wortley (1806-1855), National Portrait Gallery

Supposedly this is 1855/59, which means not that far apart from the image of her daughter, but it could have been commissioned in memoriam. Lady Emmeline is more than just a pretty face. She was a poet and writer, and editor of the 1837 and 1840 editions of The Keepsake, a magazine aimed at young women. She would have been about 30 years old then.

And after her husband died in 1844, she and Victoria traveled the world, as one does, until her death 11 years later, age 49 or 50, far from home. Mrs. Henry Cust wrote a book about their journeys in 1928.

They remind me a bit of Mary Wollstonecraft (18th century feminist) and her daughter Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), although those two couldn’t have known each other much since Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth. But both mother and daughter were writers, philosophers, and, in modern parlance, influencers. And, in 1829, Mary Shelley contributed to The Keepsake. An interesting connection.

Women editors have come to fascinate me. Beginning with Anne Little Ingram of the Illustrated London News, I started imagining a woman in charge of printers, engravers, and writers, almost all of whom would have been male (not all – both Ingram and engraver Margaret Dalziel are featured in Murder at an Exhibition). A new line of research, perhaps!



Royal Collection Trust on image of Lady Welby.

Wikipedia on Lady Emmeline (with long list of her published works)

Victorian medicine: poisons and forensic science

In my Victorian mysteries, the question of poison occasionally arises. Most Victorian poisoning stories use arsenic, because it was everywhere. Yes, it was in rat poison, but also in face lotion (stronger than Clearasil), wallpaper, and fabric (a cool green was made from copper arsenic pigment*), and it was easy to obtain. Arsenic, I’ve learned, is a very slow poison. It’s perfect for killing your husband over six months and making it look like he died of natural causes. It’s not going to cause your victim to keel over as he’s drinking tea, which is what I wanted. But eventually my detective must figure out what happened, so the question is: what did they know about detecting poison in the 1860s?

A casual internet search suggests very little was known in the 1860s. Most sites say that the only poison that could be discovered post-mortem was arsenic. That’s because of the Marsh Test, famously created after Dr. Marsh’s frustration at having a clear sample that wasn’t long-lasting enough to show a jury.

Looking for information on forensic science, after Marsh, leads to the late 19th century (1880s and 90s) as the time when fingerprinting, chemical testing, blood analysis, etc. came onto the scene. The implication is that there wasn’t much going on until then.

And then I discover that Dr. William Guy, who appears as a character in my Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, was Professor of Forensic Science at King’s College, London. If the field was that new, it seems to me, there wouldn’t be that title. I was looking for books from the 1860s that might have forensics information in them, and I found two by Guy, both written in 1861: Principles of Forensic Medicine (2nd edition!) and On the Colour-Tests for Strychnia, from lectures he had given. Aha!

For me, the story of doing historical research has always been this: whatever you think was “invented” at a particular time, its actual invention and use was earlier. We tend to rely on patents, which may be years later. That’s why I prefer contemporary journals and medical texts instead. Primary sources may not be more accurate (they usually show one point of view, after all), but they are proof of ideas in circulation.

I only knew William Guy for his public health measures, so I am again pleased at how Victorian professionals could be involved in so many different aspects of their calling. Now, to see what’s motivating my poisoner…


*Wallpaper with arsenic could be used in children’s rooms, which sounds horrific until you realize that it was toxic to bedbugs and other critters that bite children. This doesn’t make it ok, just explicable.

You’ve Got Romance

Writing my first romance was a challenge, literally. Some of my author friends were deciding whether to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last November, and two of us who usually write historical fiction decided to write historical romances.

There were no worries getting up to speed on the genre. In younger days, I read historical romances all the time: Amanda Quick, Johanna Lindsay, etc. I was charmed by the strong heroines and the handsome rogue heroes, and the way the characters spoke to each other. I could not resist, however, creating an underlying mystery, problems they had to solve, things they had to find. So the novel does have a “caper” aspect to it as well.

The research part was pleasant, too, because the focus was on the characters and their relationship. I couldn’t let the setting go entirely; to me setting is always a character in the story. I chose a part of England with which I am somewhat familiar: West Sussex. I know this area because I’ve been there for other work. For most of the last several years I have been researching H. G. Wells for non-fiction, and the estate of Uppark is in West Sussex. Wells’s mother worked at Uppark, first as maid and later as housekeeper, and young Wells frequently stayed there. I’ve visited, and was even invited to be a docent.

I used Uppark’s location as Lady Brandon’s house, where my heroine, Amanda, works as a companion. Everything else that happens is measured from there, to the surrounding towns (especially Petersborough, where there’s a pub that claims Wells wrote there at the tables) and south to Portsmouth. Portsmouth I visited many years ago on another historical quest, for the first Duke of Buckingham, who was murdered there in 1628. I even found the room where he was taken, which in the 1980s was an architect’s office, and they were so nice about letting me in to absorb the atmosphere.

Writing about places one has visited or lived is always enjoyable. But the story was another challenge. The standard pattern for a heterosexual couple romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But I wanted my heroine, Amanda, to be unusual as well as strong, not conventionally attractive but attractive to the hero, and unfailingly honest. I’ve known women who are tough and swear like truck drivers, like Amanda, and men who lie through their teeth as a matter of habit, like Jack. Their innate truthfulness (or lack thereof) plays a major role in the story.

But I didn’t want this to be another tale of a woman falling for a man, like so many romances. Although told from Amanda’s point of view much of the time, I wanted Jack to fall harder. Why? Because in so many romantic stories it is the female character who has to sacrifice something–leave her home, end her associations–to be with the man. I wanted the man to make the sacrifices, and give up things, and change more than she did.

Only recently did it occur to me that this impulse may have come from my feelings about the movie You’ve Got Mail.

<Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail, stop now, see the movie, and come back!>

I’m a huge fan of Nora Ephron, including her movie romances. But the ending of You’ve Got Mail has always bothered me. The female protagonist loses her business and her associations (with the neighborhood, the customers, and her family memories) because of the man’s actions (in a predatory business), and she gets together with him anyway. Although it’s based on Shop Around the Corner, this takeover aspect is not part of the original story nor any of its variants (the movie In the Good Old Summertime, the show She Loves Me). It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair. I wanted him to make some sacrifice to be with her. So in my book, it’s different.

For that reason, perhaps, like You’ve Got Mail, my novel A Heart Purloined ended up being a “clean” romance, where physical attraction is there but not explicit sexuality. The emotional connection, the changes to each as a result of knowing the other, were simply more important.

But the reader should in no way feel there is a “message”– it’s a fun, light-hearted story with delightful characters, not a treatise on loving sacrifice. The book is doing well in its first month, and I hope even more readers enjoy it.

Late night with Mr. Wells

Or, rather, a late night with Mr. Kaempffert, a name that Wells would just love.

And this man loved Wells. But he was very hard to find.

It began after midnight with an article I found that I wanted to use for my chapter of the Oxford Handbook on H. G. Wells. Wells is famously known to have written that human history is a race between education and catastrophe. In seeking interpretations other than the obvious, I came upon an article from 2017 by Jeffrey Di Leo entitled “Catastrophic Education: Saving the World with H. G. Wells”. In this article, he wrote:

Upon his death on 13 August 1946, the New York Times concluded his obituary with the claim that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.

This was cited to a (Slater 70), which was in Leo’s bibliography as

Salter, Arthur. (1980). Apostle of a World Society. In Hammond, J. R. (Ed.), H. G. Wells: Interviews and Recollections. Barnes and Noble Books.

So I go looking for Salter’s chapter, and neither it nor the book are online or in JSTOR, but I find it in the Internet Archive, not for download but only checkout. So I check it out and it’s kind of small and hard to read, and I want to keep it and file it. My screenshot to pdf skills being somewhat rusty, that took over half an hour, but I had it. It began with

The obituary leader on H. G. Wells in the New York Times concluded with the statement that he was the greatest public teacher of our time.

I plugged parts of the phrase into Google, and discovered that absolutely everyone who had used anything like this sentence had cited Salter.

An item in Modern Fiction Studies by Richard Costa, reviewing a book on Wells by John Reed, said:

…an anonymous New York Times editorial writer was right when, at the time of Wells’s death, he called him the “greatest public teacher of his time.”

I can only search Reed’s book online at Google Books, and only in a limited capacity. The phrases “public teacher” and “anonymous” yield no results.

Salter, unfortunately, had not cited the New York Times. Because I’m a historian, I wanted the primary source. I wasn’t there yet.

By now it was 2 a.m., and I kinda thought I should go to bed. But with a mystery unsolved? Perish the thought.

So naturally I search the New York Times for the day of his death (August 13, 1946) and find the obituary. There are two, one longer and one shorter, and neither has the quotation or anything like it. So where did Salter get it? I eat a few more fruit jellies and start searching for phrases at the New York Times archive, which luckily I can access as part-time faculty at the college.

It appears on August 25. It is not anonymous at all — it is an “In Memoriam” feature written by a Waldemar Kaempffert. It concludes with:

Anyone who is familiar with the vast output of Wells or only with the “Outline of History,” “Work,” “Wealth and Happiness of Mankind,” the “Anatomy of Frustration” and “Open Conspiracy” will probably agree that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.

This is hardly the resounding declaration claimed by everyone citing Salter, but at least it’s primary.

Other than not using the Oxford comma (and that may well be an editorial decision), Waldemar Kaempffert is unknown to me. But that’s a search for another day. Or night.

Whitechapel and the limits of history

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/a39e15cfbbce6cf71875f6844b7446de.pngThe show Whitechapel began airing over a dozen years ago, but I am only now getting around to seeing it on the advice of a friend. Normally, I don’t watch shows with a lot of violence — I prefer the victims to be dead when I get there — but given the Victorian connection I decided to simply avert my eyes (and turn down the sound) when attacks occurred.

The first season focuses on a Ripper copycat. Gee, haven’t we done that before? I liked it better when it was the real Ripper (and H.G. Wells) jumping into the future, in Time After Time. But in this case, the historical connections are part of the story, with a Ripperologist providing deep information that could help the police predict the murders.

Since Hallie Rubenhold’s wonderful book The Five wouldn’t be published for another ten years, it wasn’t surprising that all the Ripper’s victims are considered to be prostitutes. Rubenhold did away with that bias in her 2015 book, because the actual evidence about the victims shows it wasn’t true (in fact, the main commonality seemed to be problems with alcohol).

The Ripperologist in the show makes a living off of his book about Jack and the Ripper tours he conducts in the East End of London. An ethical question that emerges is the extent to which he is contributing to the copycat murders by providing so many sordid details in his books and tours. But aside from the issue of whether information influences behavior, what was most interesting was the way the police (with his help) attempt to prevent the third, fourth and fifth murders by knowing a version of what’s going to happen.

——Spoiler Alert—— (in case you haven’t watched TV since 2009)———

They fail to stop two of the murders, the first one because the copycat idea isn’t fully accepted by the police. For the second one they get very close, but a diversion keeps the police away from Mitre Square, where Catherine Eddowes was killed in 1888. What I saw happening was not the diversion, which was blamed on the Ripperologist, but the difficulty of using history to predict what’s going to happen. Even with the fullest sets of facts available, and the closest similarity to those facts, history does not repeat itself.

Naturally I spend much time watching mystery shows, and anything with a Victorian setting. Whitechapel had just a bit of Victorianism to it, mostly in digging up the past to solve a modern crime. Although hardly any of the locations of the 1888 murders look the same now, the production designer did a great job using streets in Whitechapel that have a 19th century feel, so one got the sensation of history overlapping. It was definitely worth a watch.



New Year’s update

Hello, and a happy New Year to all my subscribers!

It’s been a crazy time here preparing multiple books, but I think I have a handle on it. Murder at an Exhibition was recently released. It’s an art history mystery, with illustrator Jo Harris and her friend Bridget helping to solve the murder of a photographer. Photography, while not exactly brand new in 1863, was at a stage where it was being used for record-keeping, artistic endeavor, and more nefarious activities, just as the internet is today.

So I will reveal more soon about the context of the story, art, and London in 1863. For now, check out the map:

You’ll see the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti way over in Chelsea, on Cheyne Walk. Rossetti will help Jo with the case, and I love it when real historical people and fictional characters team up!

Murder on the Pneumatic Railway, the third Tommy Jones Mystery and the one featuring Tommy as one of the friends who solve a murder, is in the editing stage and will be released in spring. Before that, Grousable Books is pushing for a Valentine’s Day release of Lydia Greenwood’s historical romance, A Heart Purloined. It’s a light-hearted romance with plenty of history and mystery, so look for that soon.

The best New Year to everyone. I have seen some people saying good riddance to 2022, but for me it was a heck of a lot better than 2021 in a number of ways. Looking forward to seeing what’s next!


5 best books on Victorian medicine

Looking for what to read as background for my mystery Murder at Old St. Thomas’s? Take a look at my recommended book list on Victorian medicine, written for Shepherd Books.

The challenge was to narrow this to five books that would related to my novel, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, without directly referencing my book. It was fun!

At Old St. Thomas’s — This Thursday, December 8

In anticipation of my Conversation to benefit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in London, which will take place in Zoom on December 8 at 7pm British time, I am posting here about the history of the old hospital and its time in Surrey Gardens. I will be talking about some of this during my presentation. This is a re-post from March of 2020, as I was starting to write the book. Enjoy!

St. Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.


Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)


A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.


View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?


It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

Never on Sunday

or at least not until the 1890s at the National Gallery.

Deeply embedded in the plot of Murder at an Exhibition (recently released) is the idea that the National Gallery in London was closed on Sundays. The murder victim has special permission to be there on Sundays, and is murdered there on the quiet. The action takes place in 1863.

As a fiction writer, I admit to keeping much rougher notes than I do as a historian. I had looked through a couple of guidebooks of the era, and had confirmed, to my satisfaction, that the gallery was open six days a week, with four for the public and two for students only (which two days differed by guidebook, strangely). No source mentioned Sundays, so I kept writing.

Then a wrench appeared in the works.

I love how many free lectures there have been during the pandemic, and I recently attended one about the Victorian art world. The speaker noted that in 1845, the National Gallery opened on Sundays to encourage working people, who worked six days a week. The speaker also said that the grubbiness of the working people caused problems, leading to a Select Committee meeting in 1850.

The speaker used this image:

This shows working men viewing pictures at the gallery in 1870. I know that the National Gallery offered many free days, so there’s no reason this had to be on a Sunday. But it made me uncomfortable. Her talk led me to believe that perhaps the National Gallery had been open on Sundays in 1863, ruining my story.

Members of the Facebook group for the Historical Novel Society helped me out, not just with their own information but their encouragement to contact the National Gallery, where a wonderful assistant actually sent me their record of opening hours for their whole history as they knew it. No Sundays in 1863.

But the speaker had been so sure. Could there have been a trial run? I researched through Hansard, which has the debates of the House of Commons, and found much arguing about opening both the National Gallery and the British Museum on Sundays, but no conclusion. So I posted at the Victoria listserv, a place where every Victorianist who’s anybody meets up. Several members helpfully responded with books and records. I’m now 99.9% sure the Gallery was closed.

Yes, I know, if it’s this much trouble for me to confirm, I should be comfortable just showing it was closed on Sundays. It’s a fictional work, not a research project. Except that all my fictional works are research projects. Whether it’s important to the reader or not, it is ridiculously important to me that the facts be accurate, and if they’re not accurate then I’d better have a damned good reason why, and an Author’s Note. That’s just how I roll.