Title: Murder at the Bayswater Bicycle Club – A Frances Doughty Mystery
Author: Linda Stratmann
Publisher: The Mystery Press
Order: The History Press
What it is: A slice of detective fiction featuring high-wheeled bicycles and a crime-solving heroine
Strengths: The nineteenth century setting is rendered wonderfully, adding colour to what you’ve read elsewhere, while the underlying whodunnit keeps you guessing
Weaknesses: It’s the eighth book in a series – diving in so deep, you have to work a little to keep up with some of the story
As a general rule, I prefer my crime fiction hard-boiled: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson. I prefer a goon in the gutter with a gat over Miss Scarlett in the study with a spanner. Every now and then I do try and make Agatha Christie work for me, but I rarely make much progress. The same used to be true with Sherlock Holmes but, well, the last few years, he’s been everywhere, from Elementary to Sherlock and all points in between. Bit by bit he’s crept more into my consciousness than I would have thought likely.
Fans of cycling quotes, of course, love Holmes, or more precisely his creator, because of a little bit of advertising copy he wrote for Albert Pope in America. But here’s a question for you: if Arthur Conan Doyle really believed mounting a bicycle and going for a ride was the thing to do when hope hardly seems worth having, where are the bicycles in his Holmes stories?
They barely exist. This is despite the first two novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890), appearing toward the end of the high-wheel era and the first two sets of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) appearing at the start of the safety era. Bicycles, cycling historians are forever telling us, were everywhere in these years. And yet, curiously, they were hardly anywhere in the Holmes casebooks.
You actually have to jump forward to after the bicycle boom was over to find the most famous reference to bikes in the Holmes canon, ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’, from the third collection of stories, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905). That same collection also gave us ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’, in which Holmes shows himself to be a bit of a bullshitter by claiming it is possible to tell the direction of travel by the impressions left by a bicycle tyre:
‘I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s, leaving longitudinal stripes. Aveling, the mathematical master, was sure upon the point. Therefore, it is not Heidegger’s track.’
‘The boy’s, then?’
‘Possibly, if we could prove a bicycle to have been in his possession. But this we have utterly failed to do. This track, as you perceive, was made by a rider who was going from the direction of the school.’
‘Or towards it?’
‘No, no, my dear Watson. The more deeply sunk impression is, of course, the hind wheel, upon which the weight rests. You perceive several places where it has passed across and obliterated the more shallow mark of the front one. It was undoubtedly heading away from the school. It may or may not be connected with our inquiry, but we will follow it backwards before we go any farther.’
Even with Holmes’s dark cousin, the gentleman thief AJ Raffles (created by Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, EW Hornung) bicycles only arrive after the boom has gone to bust, with Raffles and his Watson, Bunny, turning to two wheels to aid their breaking-and-entering in several adventures in the 1901 collection of stories, The Black Mask. This is from the first, ‘The Wrong House’:
We taught ourselves, and may I never forget our earlier rides, through and through Richmond Park when the afternoons were shortest, upon the incomparable Ripley Road when we gave a day to It. Raffles rode a Beeston Humber, a Royal Sunbeam was good enough for me, but he insisted on our both having Dunlop tires.
‘They seem the most popular brand. I had my eye on the road all the way from Ripley to Cobham, and there were more Dunlop marks than any other kind. Bless you, yes, they all leave their special tracks, and we don’t want ours to be extra special; the Dunlop’s like a rattlesnake, and the Palmer leaves telegraph-wires, but surely the serpent is more in our line.’
That was the winter when there were so many burglaries in the Thames Valley from Richmond upward. It was said that the thieves used bicycles in every case, but what is not said?
All of this wondering about the curious absence of bicycles from what little Victorian crime fiction I’m familiar with is by way of a long and roundabout introduction to Murder at the Bayswater Bicycle Club, an 1882-set slice of detective fiction in which bicycles are everywhere. Here we are right at the novel’s start, a man powering down a country lane out Acton way, trying to outpace death:
More than ever he was thankful for the smooth and efficient performance of his new mount, the Excelsior, with its hollow front forks, sprung saddle, robust rubber tyres and 50-inch front wheel, so much better than the old boneshaker on which he had first learned to ride. As his feet pounded at the pedals, wheels throwing up little puffs of dust like smoke almost as is they were on fire, he wondered with grim irony if he was breaking a record, or achieving a personal best at least. He was certainly breaking the law, but that couldn’t be helped. For once he hoped he might meet a constable on the road who would want to pull him up for furious driving. A stiff fine was the least of his worries.
Our cyclist here is a member of the Bayswater Bicycle Club and his death – he couldn’t outpace it, not even on an Excelsior – becomes central to Frances Doughty’s investigations into possible international espionage going on within the BBC.
This is Doughty’s eighth outing in as many years in Linda Strattman’s crime series. Introduced as a nineteen-year-old in the 1880-set The Poisonous Seed Doughty’s crime-fighting days began when a wealthy customer of her father’s chemist shop died of strychnine poisoning, causing the business to collapse. In order to clear the family name she had to solve the crime, which set her on a career as a private investigator, or lady detective if you prefer to be less hard-boiled about it. Over the course of the series Doughty assembles around her a gang of helpmates and a backstory that becomes an important – though not central – strut of this latest instalment. Along the way she also picked up a bit of government work and it is this connection that sees her tasked with attending the Bayswater Bicycle Club’s annual summer meeting, held in nearby East Acton. Her task is to observe and note anything suspicious. At the first sign of danger, she’s told, she must leave.
Running away in the face of danger, what kind of crime-solving hero would Doughty be were she to do that? She practically invites danger in. First, by visiting the Bayswater Bicycle Club disguised as a man. Then, by taking one of the club’s high-wheelers and seeing what it was like to be a cyclist:
Gradually, she became more accustomed to the ride, and began to find the rhythm of the pedals, the grind of metal and the crunch of dry earth under the tyres almost calming. The sensation was like nothing else she had ever experienced, she was facing directly into the world ahead, with nothing before her; it was as if she was floating in the air like a cloud, or flying like a bird. She risked glancing about her, and saw Cedric trotting by her side, grinning broadly.
’What do you think?’ he asked.
This was it, Frances realised, the freedom that men talked about, riding the steel beast that needed little stabling and no seed, such a simple machine but one that held the promise of the open road, the delights of the countryside, clean fresh air to invigorate the body, and, most importantly, independent travel. So, ladies couldn’t ride the high-wheeler, could they? Miss Dauntless could and now Miss Doughty could, too.
’It’s wonderful!’ she declared.
Thereafter, Doughty ceases just stepping over the line and bounds across it.
There are two facets to Murder in the Bayswater Bicycle Club: unmasking the guilty party and the attendant adventures that brings, most of which take place over the course of a single day at the club’s summer meeting; and the setting itself. A large part of the book’s pleasure is the world-building, or rebuilding, the manner in which life in Victorian London is rendered. The historical setting was, of course, the interest that drove me to the novel, the chance to see how an author might bring to life these early years of the bicycle (a similar drive that took me to Martin Cathcart Froden’s 1920’s set Devil Take the Hindmost), but it was Doughty’s adventures that turned the pages, trying to work out who the guilty party was and how he would be undone.
One of the historical connections involves the manner in which women had to be inventive in their dressing in order to adapt to changing times:
There was one other important preparation Frances had made for her visit to the race meeting, the construction of her new divided skirt and polanaise, which were by far the most expensive and elegant garments she had ever purchased. Once the costume, in a beautiful shade of muted violet, was complete, she put it on and took some turns in front of the mirror. She found the ensemble both elegant and practical. She had instructed her dressmaker that she required the costume for the purposes of playing lawn tennis, and therefore lightness was essential. The skirts, in a fabric appropriate to the summer months, had been carefully cut to give the impression of fullness yet required far less volume and weight of material than was usual. In walking she was not nearly so encumbered as she had been before, and could therefore move more freely and with greater energy, yet nothing in the new fashion offended any notions of decency.
This inventiveness in the field of dressmaking is a subject we’ll be turning to next, with Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers and, course, like Chekov’s gun, here the ensemble is introduced in the first act and used in the third:
’Miss Doughty, what in the name of blazes do you think you are doing?’ shouted Sharrock, ‘You shouldn’t – you can’t –’
Frances vaulted into the saddle and began pedalling harder than she have ever done before.
’Well blow me down!’ exclaimed Sharrock.
What Arthur Conan Doyle overlooked, Linda Stratmann has brought to the fore, giving us a bicycle-riding lady detective to rival Holmes, and his dark cousin Raffles. What she’s given us is an engaging look at how nineteenth century crime fiction could have employed the every-present bicycle.