Next April will see the publication by Robert Hale of my second Inspector Antrobus novel, An Oxford Anomaly. Set in late Victorian Oxford, it centres around Jeremy Oakshott, Fellow of Jerusalem Hall, and an authority on the Crusades, who is urged by the renowned archaeologist Mrs Herbert Lestrange to join her expedition to Syria. His wealthy uncle, Ambrose Littlemore, refuses to help him financially, and is murdered soon afterwards. Detective Inspector Antrobus, who has already investigated the savage murder of one of Oakshott’s old friends, believes Oakshott to be the killer, but the scholar’s alibis are completely watertight. Assisted by his doctor friend Sophia Jex-Blake (of whom more later) Antrobus looks further afield, visiting two criminal lunatic asylums, a remote nunnery, and a quiet country village, where at last they uncover the truth about five savage murders, and bring their perpetrator to justice.
I have always had a deep interest in the late Victorian period, its works and its ways, so it was not surprising that for my PhD thesis at London University I chose to examine literary responses to capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. I turned my thesis into a book, The Novelist and Mammon, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.
Over the last fifteen years, Robert Hale have published nine of my Inspector Jackson novels, set in the Warwickshire countryside in the 1890s, and seven thrillers set in the same era, featuring Inspector Arnold Box, who works out of the old Scotland Yard buildings near Whitehall Place. This year saw the first appearance of Detective Inspector James Antrobus, another nineteenth century police officer, this time operating from the headquarters of the Oxford City Police. I spent four very enjoyable years studying at Oxford, and when I conceived the character of Antrobus, it seemed natural that I should place him in that ancient university city, where he can tackle the many sinister criminals thrown up by both Town and Gown. As a further tribute to my alma mater, I decided that all the Antrobus novels should feature the name “Oxford” in their titles.
An Oxford Tragedy (2015) showed James Antrobus, and his petulant but fiercely protective sergeant, Joseph Maxwell, investigating the death of Sir Montague Fowler, Warden of St Michael’s College. He crosses swords with a number of secretive and eccentric dons, uncovers a long-hidden academic fraud, and has deep dealings with the late Sir Montague’s devious family before he brings the truth of this particular Oxford tragedy to light.
However, it is not only the criminal world that Antrobus has to contend with. James Antrobus is a man coping as well as he is able with chronic consumption of the lungs. Throughout the Oxford stories we see him seized with haemorrhages of the lungs and appalling coughing fits, together with periods of hospitalization, where he has to submit to some of the stern and rather terrifying treatments of the day. Countless thousands of people lived with the many crippling variants of tuberculosis rampant in that era, including a number of prominent police officers, men like Antrobus, who fought valiantly to carry out their duties, often with complete success before an inevitably early death.
Inspector Antrobus is lucky to have a friend and fellow-sleuth in the person of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, who becomes both his ally and, when necessary, his physician. Jex-Blake was, of course, a real person, one of a group of remarkable women who laboured for the right of their sex to become doctors. Given the medical context of these stories, I think the alliance of the fictional Antrobus and the real-life Sophia Jex-Blake works well.
Will we see more of Antrobus and Sophia Jex-Blake? Well, nineteenth century Oxford was a place concealing many dark mysteries, festering professional jealousies, murderous desires, and other sinister proclivities common to the human condition. So if Dr Jex-Blake can keep Antrobus in the land of the living – and I rather think that she can – then there will be plenty of work to keep him busy.
An Oxford Anomaly will be published by Robert Hale in April 2016