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Carina Burman, Babylons gatar: Ett Londonmysterium (The Streets of Babylon: A London Mystery)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2004. ISBN: 9100103802

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:1

English Translation: The Streets of Babylon: A London Mystery, translated by Sarah Death. Marion Boyars, 2008. ISBN 9780714531380.

Wilkie Collins and gains an attentive admirer in the shape of an Indian prof-essor of obstetrics. Searching for Agnes, she teams up with Inspector Owain Evans of Scotland Yard, a likeable, down-to-earth Welshman, “an outsider like me”. Evans whisks her round London in search of clues (a useful map is provided on the inside cover), introducing her along the way her to the pleasures of street food and whisky. Together – and often separately, for he feels obliged to try to keep her out of danger – they help the police solve a vile series of prostitute murders in the East End, committed by the unpleasant husband of Euthanasia’s innocent translator Mrs Russell. They also finally trace Agnes and several other abducted virgins to a ship bound for Italy, where they will be deflowered in a long-planned orgy for the gratification of depraved English noblemen. Ironically, Euthanasia reveals that Agnes is far from virginal, being (a very Bremeresque touch, this) a former prostitute she has rescued from the streets of Stockholm. The plot is intentionally far-fetched; the rooftop chase scenes, druggings and abductions, knifepoint tussles and ship-board skulduggery worthy of Hollywood. But a lot of time is also spend quietly drinking tea and writing novels in a hotel room in The Strand, and the tone and vocabulary are pure Bremer. Euthanasia’s gushing praises for the London police force closely echo Bremer’s in England in the Autumn of 1851; her status as a world-famous writer, exchanges with her London publisher on copyright problems and dutiful letters home to a string of sisters parallel Bremer’s own exper-iences. Euthanasia’s translator Amanda Russell (and how nice to see a translator in a fairly major role) is closely based, apart from the murderous husband of course, on Bremer’s own translator Mary Howitt. Only those well versed in Bremer’s writing will know how skilfully fact and fiction are interwoven. A Guardian review of Karen Joy Fowler’s recent The Jane Austen Book Club said, “The author is quite able to display her own Austen saturation”, and the same is true of Burman with Bremer. But whereas Fowler apparently “nudges devotees to notice particular allusions”, Burman seems to strew them around for the sheer delight of it, Euthanasia Bondeson, narrator of Carina Burman’s latest literary pastiche, is a most unorthodox Victorian spinster. “Self-absorbed, tactless and irresistible”, as the dust jacket blurb accurately describes her, she is an intrepid middle-aged traveller and writer of romantic adventure novels, forced to turn amateur sleuth when her young companion Agnes disappears in suspicious circumstances during their trip to London in 1851. A diminutive, bustling figure with a healthy appetite for everything from cigars to champagne, from eel pie to exotic curries, she occasionally exchanges her crinoline for gentleman’s garb in order to move around the city alone at night, sword stick in hand. In extremis, she will even shin up drainpipes and engage in physical combat. Improbably, she also has an awful lot in common with Swedish nineteenth century writer Fredrika Bremer, on whose life and works Burman is an acknowledged expert. Bremer, like Euthanasia, paid a short visit to England in 1851. Wishing to study industrialization and the labour movement, she visited schools and factories, but like Euthanasia she was also drawn to the Great Exhibition, to the newlyarrived Elgin marbles at the British Museum and other London sights. She recorded her impressions in the travel notes England om hösten år 1851 (England in the Autumn of 1851), serialized in Afton-bladet from January 1852, and published in translation in Sharpe’s London Magazine in 1852. Fredrika Bremer and a Victorian detective spoof might initially seem strange bedfellows. Burman, however, signals from the outset by the ludicrous choice of name for her heroine that this is not a book to take too seriously, but a glorious game of “Imagine if...”, with the biographical canvas extravagantly embroidered to create a thoroughgoing romp. Carina Burman subverts the norms of Victorian femininity, flirts with the conventions of crime fiction and marinates the whole in the atmosphere of Dickensian London, from the glittering parties of the cultural elite to the sordid underside of crime and pornography. She lets Fredrika Bremer’s fearless and unconventional side develop in her fictional alter ego as it never could in life, and adds another fascinating dimen-sion by comparing her own creative processes and public experiences as a novelist today with those of her nineteenth century counterpart. The plot can be summarized thus: welcomed as a literary celebrity, Miss Bondeson falls in with PreRaphaelite artists, rubs shoulders with Dickens and probably well aware that the number of fellow Bremer enthusiasts is pretty small these days. As a minor Bremer scholar myself, I felt the heady and previously unknown sensation of reading a book that seemed written specially for me. Sadly, this fact alone hardly ensures great commercial success in today’s competitive book-selling environment; but if Burman faces an uphill struggle to rescue Bremer’s lesser known works from obscurity, she will at any rate have great fun in the process. And perhaps it doesn’t matter that the Swedish critics were a little hazy about the Bremer connection; most of them were won over by the period detail and sheer exuberant cheek of The Streets of Babylon.

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