When I first set out to originally have a ‘Sensation September’ one of the reasons it swiftly became a ‘Sensation Season’ instead was that there were not only too many sensation novels from the original era that I wanted to read, but also too many what I would deem ‘modern sensation’ novels too. But what on earth makes a modern sensation novel, I hear you cry.
Well as I am not Wikipedia I can’t give you the official definition of a modern sensation novel because there isn’t one… as yet! However I can happily make one up instead, maybe the Savidge Reads guide for modern sensation fiction could catch on? So here are what I deem the rules for modern sensation fiction…
- It must be set in the Victorian era or if modern be set in a spooky old house (preferable a manor or bigger and also maybe with a spooky old wood near by).
- There must be much secrets and intrigue.
- There must be plenty of plot twists and quite a few red herrings.
- There need to be a lot of coincidences.
- It needs to contain adultery, theft, bigamy, kidnapping, insanity, forgery, abduction or murder. Or even better all of these ingredients.
- It can have a ghost or two in it… at a push!
Now taking all this into account I think that you could actually have quite a lot of ‘modern sensation’ novels. Half of the current (and past classics, such as Agatha Christie) crime fiction could be linked back to sensation fiction with just the murder part! I think the modern sensations need to have all of the above and a little ‘sensation magic’ which isn’t easy to describe, so instead here are the first five books I could think of that have all of these elements but were written recently. I have read one, am going to re-read another and read the other three for the first time over the next few weeks…
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – ‘We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck – one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage – one thing that never had a price put to it. I mean of course, Me.’ Sue Trinder, orphaned at birth, is born among petty thieves – fingersmiths – in London’s Borough. From the moment she draws breath, her fate is linked to another orphan, growing up in a gloomy mansion not too many miles away.
The Observations by Jane Harris – So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slice of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn’t quite the end …Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of “The Observations” – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.
The Séance by John Harwood – ‘Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’ London, the 1880s. A young girl grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance Langton takes her to a seance. Perhaps they will find comfort from beyond the grave. But that seance has tragic consequences.Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest will blight her life. So begins “The Seance”, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late Victorian England. It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains – and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house, and a mystery. Years before a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a terrifying stately home near the Suffolk coast. Now Constance must find the truth behind the mystery, even at the cost of her life. Because without the truth, she is lost.
The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – From her lookout on the first floor, Ginny watches and waits for her adored younger sister to return to the crumbling mansion that was once their idyllic childhood home. Vivien has not stepped foot in the house since she left, forty seven years ago; Ginny, the reclusive lepidopterist, has rarely ventured outside it. The remembrance of their youth, of loss, and of old rivalries plays across Ginny’s mind. Why is Vivi coming home? Ginny has been selling off the family furniture over the years, gradually shutting off each wing of the house and retreating into the precise routines and isolation that define her days. Only the attic remains untouched. There, collected over several generations, are walls lined with pinned and preserved Bordered Beauties and Rusty Waves, Feathered Footmen and Great Brocades, Purple Cloud, Angle Shades, the Gothic and the Stranger …
The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling – This work is set in Lambeth, London, in the year 1859. By the time Dora Damage discovers that there is something wrong with her husband, Peter, it is too late. His arthritic hands are crippled, putting his book-binding business into huge debt and his family in danger of entering the poorhouse. Summoning her courage, Dora proves that she is more than just a housewife and mother. Taking to the streets, she resolves to rescue her family at any price – and finds herself illegally binding expensive volumes of pornography commissioned by aristocrats. Then, when a mysterious fugitive slave arrives at her door, Dora realizes she’s entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law. Now the very family she fought so hard for is under threat from a host of new, more dangerous foes. Belinda Starling’s debut novel is a startling vision of Victorian London, juxtaposing its filth and poverty with its affluence. In “Dora Damage” we meet a daring young heroine, struggling in a very modern way against the constraints of the day, and whose resourcefulness and bravery have us rooting for her all the way.
What do you think… about all of it?