From the Publisher
“The Trail of the Serpent is thoroughly engaging—vintage storytelling with more than a touch of sly wit.” —Sue Grafton
“Why have we been deprived of this treat for a hundred years? The Trail of the Serpent is a cracking good read, addictively ingenious, electrically energetic, engagingly entertaining, and above all fun!”—Reginald Hill
“The Trail of the Serpent is immensely vivid, sweeping you along with its character and vitality.”—Anne Perry
The New Yorker
Better known for his prodigious output as a biographer -- his subjects have included Tolstoy, Jesus, and C. S. Lewis -- A. N. Wilson has returned to social history. The Victorians, Wilson's chronicle of nineteenth-century Britain, looks at everything from the era's religious crises (the decline of Christian conviction) to its scientific advances (the emergence of evolutionary theory). One of the major themes is the growing problem of social stratification; the wealthy retreated into gated squares and the poor were left to live in what Wilson memorably describes as "a hard, brick-built, low-lying, gin-soaked world out of whose gaslit music halls and fogbound alleys mythologies developed."
Victorian fiction, past and present, takes up these mythologies. In Michel Faber's latest novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, both the disease-ridden slums of factory workers and the prim precincts of the upper class play a role in the life of a wealthy perfume manufacturer whose daughter's governess (his former mistress) has a shady past as a prostitute and whose pious brother seeks redemption from his own lust by trying to save the soul of a fallen woman.
Still more poverty and dissolution permeate The Trail of the Serpent, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's detective novel, which was first published in 1860. Jabez North, a foundling who was fished from the Sloshy River as a baby, leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him as he moves from the workhouse to the aristocracy. Though he gains his title, he can't escape his lowly past; as Braddon writes, he is still part of the "odoriferous neighborhood, where foul scents, foul sights, and fouler language abound."
The devotion of the outrageously prolific Braddon (1835–1915) to the form of the "sensation novel" produced literally dozens of bestselling Victorian potboilers written more or less in the manner made respectable by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and Wilkie Collins. This exuberantly campy 1864 romance, a slightly revised version of Braddon’s unsuccessful debut, Three Times Dead, concerns a serial malefactor’s assiduous criminality, temporary escape from judgment, and eventual comeuppance. Its increasingly lurid events begin in the riverside town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy, where handsome young schoolteacher Jabez North, a foundling and a scheming careerist, commits murder, drives his pregnant mistress to suicide, and eludes the pursuit of a dogged detective (one of the earliest in English fiction). Peters, despite being deaf and dumb, engineers the release from an insane asylum of the innocent man accused of North’s crimes, and patiently continues to pursue "the serpent." The latter behaves even more atrociously while living incognito in France, where he destroys the happiness of a charming heiress before encountering the source of his own infamy, and is at last apprehended in a garish climax Bram Stoker might have dreamed up. Braddon is a slapdash stylist, and reading her can hurt the brain. But the narrative energy and insistent theatricality help make this inordinately busy melodrama almost as entertaining as it is imperturbably ridiculous.