Anthony Trollope, Crime Writer

To mark the first day of the Crime Fest 2014 in Bristol, I think it proper to correct the misapprehension that Trollope was an author of cozy tales of the Victorian upper middle class.

His first novel is far away from the serenity of pastoral Barsetshire. In the wilds of Ballycloran in County Leitrim in Ireland, Thady Macdermot murders Myles Ussher for seducing his sister Feemy and is hanged for his crime in an almost gothic drama, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. Trollope said of this novel, “As to plot itself, I do not know that I ever made one so good”.

Now many people would argue that Trollope’s strength as a writer was in creating believable characters rather than plot. Indeed, weak plotting would have precluded him from membership of the club of Golden Age mystery writers. That is, if his penchant for authorial nudges didn’t cause him to reveal whodunnit before half the book was complete. But in an age where crime fiction is driven more by character than plot, surely Trollope could hold up his head?

In fact, murder features regularly in Trollope’s novels.

It provides the wellspring for the unfolding story of Mary Thorne in Dr Thorne, the third Barsetshire chronicle. She is the illegitimate daughter of Henry Thorne (the Doctor’s wastrel brother) and Mary Scatcherd. Before the start of the novel, Mary’s brother Roger beats Henry to death for seducing and abandoning his sister. This back-story and its concealment drives much of the narrative thrust of the tale.

Wrongful accusations of murder and the trial and acquittal of innocent heroes also feature in Trollope’s novels. In Phineas Redux, Phineas Finn is tried for the murder of his bitter political enemy Mr Bonteen and only saved by the timely intervention of Madame Max Goesler, who discovered evidence to implicate the sinister Reverend Emilius. Step forward fiction’s first woman detective?

Similarly, Sam Brattle is wrongly accused of the murder of Farmer Trumbell and his innocence demonstrated by the eponymous Vicar of Bulhampton.

But it is in Ireland where Trollope concentrates his murders. Here the mother of Kate O’Hara pushes Fred Neville over the cliffs after he gets Kate pregnant but will not marry her in An Eye For An Eye. (You may notice something of a recurring theme here!) Finally, the Irish novel, The Landleaguers, sees not one but two witnesses in the trial of Pat Carroll murdered to prevent them testifying against him. Indeed, in addition to the killings of Florian Jones and Terry Carroll, the Landleaguers also make an attempt on the life of Captain Clayton, making it the bloodiest of Trollope’s novels.

While seven murders over the course of 48 novels is hardly the sort of body-count to trouble the average serial killer in today’s fiction, it is rather more than might be expected from a determinedly unsensational Victorian novelist like Trollope.


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