by Viola Carr
I love steampunk, and the Victorian era, but I'm only an amateur historian. For me, so long as the writer gets the sense of the period authentic, they can add in whatever they like – zombies, clockwork people, steam-powered airships – and I'll buy into it.
My Electric Empire series centers on Dr. Eliza Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – whom I've invented and transported to the mid-Victorian-era, as a physician and crime scene investigator. Cool, eh? She's a combination of detective, forensic specialist and mad scientist. CSI: Jekyll & Hyde.
Never mind that, in the real 1850s, there was no such thing as a CSI. I've had to alter history quite a bit, in subtle ways.
Firstly, the physicians of the day were notoriously standoffish about getting their hands dirty – as opposed to surgeons, whom physicians sneered at as mere artisans, little better than butchers. Physicians would be more likely to confine themselves to laboratory testing for poisons or illnesses, which more often than not, they got wrong. So the idea of my physician attending a dirty crime scene in person is ahead of its time.
Oh, and qualified female physicians? No such thing in England until 1865, when a formidable lady named Elizabeth Garrett Anderson bullied her way in through the back door, fighting a hostile College of Physicians every step of the way. But never mind. This is steampunk!
I also had to deal with the fact that in the 'real' 1850s, crime scene investigation as we know it today – searching for trace evidence at the scene – hadn't been invented yet. By modern standards, it was appallingly easy to get away with murder.
Locard's Exchange Principle – the now-common concept that 'every contact leaves a trace' – hadn't yet been formulated. And even if it had been, contemporary science was woefully inadequate to the task. There was as yet no test to prove that a stain was blood, or that it was human and not animal. Poisons such as strychnine were undetectable. Of course, no one had ever heard of DNA, or even blood typing.
Autopsies were done on the spot, in poor light and filth, by inexpert people. And much of the common medico-legal wisdom – such as the idea that a murder victim's retina preserved an image of the killer's face, or that if a dead infant's lungs floated in water, it indicated breathing and therefore infanticide rather than stillbirth – were just plain wrong.
On top of that, police procedure was dodgy, too. Crime scenes were routinely contaminated by curious passers-by, who were encouraged to view the gruesome scenes for entertainment. Crucial evidence was lost, misidentified or ignored because no one knew any better. And identifying suspects properly was impossible, without fingerprinting or a proper filing system for photographic records.
With all these limitations, a real Victorian CSI wasn't left with much to do! Luckily, steampunk and weird science have come to my rescue. Eliza Jekyll has all manner of improbable gadgets: portable electric lights, bottles of special solution, an array of fantastic lenses and sensors that perform feats of detection that are scientifically impossible without a little magic. She reaches conclusions about crime scene evidence that her real-world contemporaries could not.
But hey, it's steampunk! We can suspend a little disbelief here. And in a world where Dr. Jekyll's potion is real and actually works, sinister brass automatons stalk the streets, and the electric underground train has been invented forty years before its time… well, it'd be stranger if forensics didn't happen.
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Viola's Newest Steampunk Masterpiece: The Dastardly Miss Lizzie
Now, she’s confronted by her most baffling case yet: an evil genius with a penchant for theatrics is murdering eminent scientists in the most inexplicable ways. Her investigation uncovers a murky world of forbidden books, secret laboratories and bleeding-edge science punishable by death--and a shocking connection to her father’s infamous experiments. Desperate to learn the truth about her past, she must infiltrate a cabal of fanatical inventors bent on a discovery that will change the world--or destroy it.
With London under attack by sorcery-wielding terrorists, and the Royal Society’s enforcers determined to bury her evidence for good, Eliza needs all the friends she can get if she’s to thwart the killer and keep her head. But when Lizzie’s criminal shenanigans get Eliza fired from the Metropolitan Police, and Remy is implicated in an act of bloody vengeance he didn’t commit (or did he?), she’s on her own.
Except for wily, resourceful, mercurial Lizzie. But Lizzie’s got her own life now. And she’ll do anything to keep it. Even if it means attempting the unspeakable and finding her own body. Even if it means throwing Eliza to the wolves, and letting the world burn…
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