Dressing the part of Murder

One of my favorite times on the recent tour for Murder of Mary Russell was the launch, when friends near and far gathered to celebrate the publication–and to admire the amazing donning of Victorian garb by Caroline Bellios, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Fashion and assistant director of the Fashion Resource Center at SAIC.

I got in touch with Professor Bellios when I was looking for a fun way to launch the book, and a search for Victorian cosplay enthusiasts that began with The Victorian Society of Chicago ended up with a whole lot more.

Professor Bellios started off dressed in her combinations, stockings, and shoes (once you put on a corset, you don’t want to be bending to fasten your shoes…)CB combinations

She laced on her corset with the assistance of her sister, Joanna Bellios Wozniak, playing the role of lady’s maid. First Caroline worked the front hooks of the busk, then let out her breath while the laces in back were drawn tight, after which she could tie the long strings. She noted that those corsets we see in museums, which give rise to the belief that all Victorian women had 20″ waists, would in fact not have been laced all the way together, but instead would be separated by a few inches. (Which may be something of a relief, although that doesn’t account for those tiny shoes one also sees…)

CB corset front fastening

CB corset lacing





CB lacing corset

Then came the petticoat–which in 1879, the year Clara Hudson meets Sherlock Holmes, would have been relatively straight, since the fashion was for the long line rather than the exaggerated hips of the crinoline era.

CB petticoat goind on

CB petticoat

It was followed by the underskirt and the skirt itself, with ruffles (removable for cleaning–the streets were filthy!)

CB overskirt

CB overskirt going on

After the skirts came a many-buttoned bodice

CB fastening bodice

then the jacket with its long, snug sleeves.CB putting on jacket

In 1879, hoops were long gone and even bustles were (temporarily) in abeyance, replaced by ruffles that emphasized the smooth front and dramatic back line of the skirt:CB showing back of skirt

We now added a hat:

..and with a small reticule fastened to her wrist, had the very model of the Victorian lady, out to conquer the world:

CB fully dressed

Professor Bellios even brought a few actual vintage garments, including gorgeously delicate silk 1920s undergarments, and a Victorian corset and pair of bustles, one with wires, the other composed of tightly-stuffed linen rolls (horsehair, probably).bustles

This really was a thrill, and I owe a Victorian boat-load of thanks to Caroline and her sister, to Anderson’s at Naperville, and to long-time friend of Russell and photographic genius John Bychowski, who took all these photos except the last.  (John is also a moderator in the Book Club.)

Finally, if you’d like to add a couple of pages to your meditative coloring book, a page illustrating a lady’s Victorian garments is here, with its 1925 counterpart here.

An everyday god on the road

As you probably know, I’ve been on the road since last Tuesday, talking about The Murder of Mary Russell in a variety of bookstores, tea shops, and even an opera house.
During that time, I’ve also been listening to the talk about it, in person and on Facebook, and I’m so very happy that you’ve been loving it even more than I. A book tour is a strange thing. Airports are diabolical in their ability to play on the nerves, airline apps that work fine one day turn their backs the next. E-boarding passes vanish. One scuffles onto and off of planes, sometimes on the same day–yesterday I landed in Austin at one, did an event for Book People at two, and got back on a plane at five, leaving my poor brain to wonder…What just happened there?
Even stranger is what it does to the self. Fifty weeks a year, I sit in my study and push words around on paper and screen, muttering snippets of dialogue under my breath, breaking off to make a cup of tea or greet the UPS lady in the driveway. I cook dinner, unload the dishwasher, do the laundry, tell myself I really need to mop the floor. Groceries need buying, packages need mailing at the post office, and grandsons demand complicated structures involving pvc pipe and golf balls on the deck.

Then I come on tour, and I’m a god. Beautiful and intelligent young women stand before me with shaking hands and halting tongues, trying to express how much it means to them that I deign to speak my gracious words in their direction. Lawyers and teachers break into smiles and say that they’ve been taking joy in my work since The Beekeeper’s Apprentice came into their hands twenty years before. People at the end of the line bend to unload a vast stack of clearly read and loved books that have been awaiting my signature since the collection began many years before.

And they leave with The Murder of Mary Russell treasured in both hands, as if I’ve given them a gift rather than made them spend $28 for a few hours’ reading.

And all that? It makes the airport hassles vanish in the past.

Yes, that sounds like him

One of the fun parts of The Murder of Mary Russell is that we see a very young Sherlock Holmes.  Even then, he sounds very like himself…

e-card 8 point of knowing


The Murder of Mary Russell can be ordered as:

     A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

     An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

     A UK hardback from Waterstones, or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.

Street Life of London

Parts of The Murder of Mary Russell take place in 1925, but much of it goes back to the mid-nineteenth century.


Isembard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian spirit.

The Victorian era was a time of brilliant light, spectacular technological development, and enormous social development.


For the wealthy.


Gustave Doré

For the rest, it was a time of rotting teeth, foul diseases, hunger, cold, and the workhouse.

Life expectancy was in the low 40s, one in five children died before their fifth birthday, and the Thames in London stank like the sewer it was.

Copyright Ben Cavanna

In 1876, the year young Clara Hudson was returning to London in The Murder of Mary Russell, photographer John Thompson set up his camera tripod and began to record the lives of common people in the capital city. He was joined by radical journalist Adolphe Smith, whose essays describe, in honest and even affectionate terms, the men and women in Thompson’s photographs. Here are the dustmen with their spavined horses, the public disinfectors, the Covent Garden labourers, baskets on head. Men carry advertising boards, men work on the decks of barges.

And the women in their many-layered clothing, their faces worn-down and older than their years, but their eyes gaze into Thompson’s big lens with dignity and strength.An-Old-Clothes-Shop-Seven-Dials

And the children? They look cold and wary even in the photographs of summer.Sufferers-from-the-Floods

You can read Street Life in London online, and there’s a video made from the photographs:

murder of mary russell UK


The Murder of Mary Russell can ordered as:

A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

A UK hardback from Waterstones, or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.

Women’s dress: 1879 & 1925

A key date in The Murder of Mary Russell is 1879, when Sherlock Holmes and his future landlady meet. The other date is, of course, 1925, when Mary Russell…well.

One thing that fascinated me is the difference in clothing between those two periods. Yes, Russell tends to wear her father’s old suits, but she couldn’t have got away with that in 1879.

One doesn’t think of the Victorian era as a time of rapid change, when it comes to women’s clothing, but in fact, even a relative neophyte to the history of fashion quickly begins to spot the differences.


John O’Connor

In the mid-1850s, multiple petticoats were replaced by crinolines, hooped skirts made of various materials but often steel. For a decade, huge and unwieldy skirts reigned supreme. Then in the 1870s, crinolines shrank into crinolettes, then bustles, until in 1879 the fashion was for the so-called “natural form” (hah!) of a long, rigidly corseted torso, a petticoat that emphasized the skirt backs, and a train.

During the 19th century, a woman wore 25 or more pounds of clothing—and that was before she put on her outer cloak. In 1863, at the height of the hoop skirt, 2500 people died in a church fire in Santiago, Chile, when crinolines blocked the way to escape. Throughout the century, women died when their skirts caught flame, or drowned when they slipped into the stream fetching water and their clothing pulled them under.

I was interested in the many and incredibly complex layers of clothing a Victorian woman wore (for an illustration of dressing, click here.)1879 garments (King)

The technology of the corset reminds me of a ship’s rigging, a series of balanced tensions and surfaces—and if I had to put one on every day, I’d probably throttle myself.

Why, even a woman’s drawers were engineered to meet the needs of a woman who couldn’t reach past her skirts, and couldn’t bend her torso.Drawers

Compare with this a woman’s dress in 1925, when The Murder of Mary Russell opens. Perhaps three or four pounds of clothing, half of which is on the feet.1925 garments (King)

I’ve made a handout for stores to give out at my events—you can print them out, and even use them as a two-page coloring book, if you like.  The Victorian page is here, the 1925 version here.


murder of mary russell UK

The Murder of Mary Russell may be ordered as:

A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

A UK hardback from Waterstones or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.


A landlady’s joy

The Murder of Mary Russell: Mrs Hudson encounters the joys [sic] of the Baker Street house.

e-card 7 221A


The Murder of Mary Russell can be ordered as:

     A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

     An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

     A UK hardback from Waterstones, or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.

Mr Holmes’ London

Out today: The Murder of Mary Russell, in which we meet a young Holmes, and also see a much older version of the Great Detective remembering those far-off days.  I hope you enjoy it.e-card 6 architecture

Key to The Murder of Mary Russell is the past of Sherlock Holmes, and especially the Victorian city through which he moved with such thorough and expert familiarity:

If London’s buildings and roads had changed since the days of his youth, even more so had the architecture of crime. Walking through London forty years ago, he could have named every dip, broadsman, and palmer who went by—along with the mobsman who ran him and the beak who’d last sent him down.

It looked like a cleaner city now. The Ripper killings, that bloody spasm that took place seven years after he’d moved into Baker Street, would be difficult today under London’s electric glare—though by no means impossible. And the average citizen was less likely to climb off an omnibus with empty pockets or wake up in an alley with a bloodied head—but it still happened. The dirt remained; it had just got pushed into the corners.

In case you’re visiting London in 1879embankment low res

and you want to just linger in the vicinity of places where Sherlock Holmes or Mrs Hudson might pass, Mr Charles Dickens Jr has some suggestions for you—and a caveat.


The early morning begins with an exercise ride in Rotten-row. In the afternoon, grand parade in the same place, with splendid show of carriages in the Drive. It is here that a stranger will get his best view of the London “world.”



If all you care about is not to be stared at, you may now walk about most parts of London in any ordinary English costume. If, however, you wish to go into the park during parade hours in the season, to the “Zoo” on Sunday afternoons, the Horticultural Gardens, or any other fashionable resort, gloves, chimney-pot hat, orthodox morning coat, &c., are still essential.


From the excellent site Victorian London: http://www.victorianlondon.org/


Evening dress is not de rigueur in any part of any of the theatres, though on the whole it predominates in the stalls. Don’t wear a scarlet opera-cloak, however, if you can help it. It is commonly regarded by the initiated as strong evidence that its owner has come in with an “order.” Ladies frequent the stalls as much as any other part. At the Italian operas evening dress is indispensable in every part except gallery. This rule is rigorously enforced to the smallest detail, and it is hopeless to think of evading it.

(Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1879, An Unconventional Handbook, by Charles Dickens [Jr.], here.)

 22-199x300murder of mary russell UK









The Murder of Mary Russell can ordered as:

A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

A UK hardback from Waterstones or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.

Obits & headstones & hope, oh my! (contest winners)

Last month, I invited all Friends of Russell to speculate on that good woman’s death: was it in 1925, or recently—or in the future? How did her obituary in The Times of London read, or what did her headstone look like.

(I really have to stop doing these contests: judging them just pulls me to pieces, since I want to give every entry a prize…)

But with the caveat that the differences between these winners and the runners-up is small, here are your winning entries:

Bob Rude:

Tombstone_ Bob Rude

(Note both pipe and throwing knife…)

Jane Sellman:

From the London Times, 1925

Sussex—July 14th—Mary Holmes (nee Russell), consulting detective and scholar and wife of the famous Sherlock Holmes, died yesterday in what first appeared to be an accident but may well have been deliberate murder. Mrs. Holmes was found near the beehives at the Holmes property in Sussex by a local lad, one Thomas Paddington, who works odd jobs. “She weren’t breathin’ or nuthin,” the 14-year-old asserted.

Local police at first put her death down to misadventure, possibly a reaction to an ordinary bee sting. However, when Mr. Holmes and Scotland Yard arrived on the scene, they soon determined that she had been stung by a group of hybrid bees; corpses of these insects were found nearby. They were larger and lighter than normal honeybees and had longer and sharper stingers, according to police sources. Mr. Holmes and Inspector Lestrade are trying to determine if someone brought the bees deliberately to the property. People in the area reported seeing a stranger walking the country paths, carrying a wooden case. Those who encountered him remembered a German accent.

Despite his grief, Mr. Holmes continues on the case along with the Yard. Mrs. Holmes is to be buried on the Sussex property tomorrow. The funeral service will be held at the Eastbourne Hebrew Congregation.


Linda Hay:

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Friston, East Sussex and

Graveyard, final resting place of Mary Russell Homes?

Mary Judith Russell Holmes  1900 – 1925

April 1, 2016    Today in Santa Cruz, California, Laurie R. King, the literary agent for Mary Russell Holmes, announced the passing of her client in 1925. Known chiefly for her memoirs, Russell was a partner with her husband, Sherlock Holmes, in the world’s first consulting detective firm, based at that time near the village of East Dean, Sussex rather than at the more famous Baker Street address. She was also an up and coming scholar of some renown in the field of theology and had recently finished her PhD thesis on the women of the Hebrew Bible. It was expected that she would soon be awarded her Doctorate at Oxford where she also did her undergraduate work.

As it is more than ninety years since her death, fans of the memoirs are skeptical, pointing out that her husband’s death had been announced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893, followed ten years later by a story explaining his faked death and reappearance. Speculation among the followers of Ms. King’s  blog postings, novel-memoirs, and short stores seem to favor the theory that Ms. Russell did not die in 1925 and await further developments. Online speculation has been intense.

Leslie Klinger, Holmes expert, friend, and colleague of Ms. King, has drawn the public’s attention to a badly weathered tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Friston, East Sussex. Carved in marble and rendered nearly illegible by salt filled air and acid rain, the only word which can be deciphered is “Mary” and the date “1900”. The traces of the rest of the inscription deepen the mystery.  Mary Russell preferred to use her maiden name, however, in deference to the social norms of her day, she sometimes went by Mary Russell Holmes, to make clear the relationship with her husband, when not to do so might make things awkward. She also sometimes used her full name, given her at birth. The space after the word “Mary” would accommodate quite a long version of her name, or perhaps a description such as “beloved wife of.”

Sadly the records for the graveyard were damaged during WW II when a leak in the roof of the vestry went unnoticed for some time. Thus far, in the hours since the announcement, no death certificate has been found either.  Some would argue that as there is no obituary for her in The Times in 1925, that like her husband, she can not be dead. Ms. King has yet to comment on the speculations, but a book “The Murder of Mary Russell,” coming out on April 5 may answer the question.


Jerry & Cae Burge:

March 1, 2016

Declaration of Death in Absentia

Having been satisfied that all processes were followed, the High Court of Justice declared Mary Judith Russell Holmes deceased on 29th February 2016 after having been missing for seven years. The senior members of Scotland Yard believe her to be dead.  There were several reported sightings of her since the time of her disappearance but none of those could be verified.  In addition, detectives assigned to the case noted several cryptic advertisements in the Personals sections of various newspapers in the U.K. and several in San Francisco, California, USA. They believe that Miss Russell, as she was known, may have placed the notices herself but they could not prove this with certainty.

Following this High Court ruling the coroner will convene an inquest at which time a death certificate will be issued if no further information comes to light.  At that time, Miss Russell’s American lawyers, who are named as executors, will be able to settle her estate.  Miss Russell’s birth date has been given as 2 January 1900. She was believed to be 109 years old at her last known appearance.  Her executors have said they will place a memorial marker at Oxford University ‘at the proper time.’



Rebecca Rodden:

Headstone Rodden

(Love the throwing knife in the tree…)

But for the grand prize, I wanted something that grasped the point of the exercise most thoroughly, that reflected the despair and the hope and a willingness to Play the Game that spoke for us all.  And so, in a sentiment we can all agree with, we have:

Katie Magnusson:

The Times erroneously reported the death of Ms. Mary Russell in yesterday’s edition. We have been informed, by the woman herself, that she is alive and well. We regret our mistake, and apologize to Ms. Russell, her respected husband, and the rest of their family.

Murder in his eyes

The Murder.  Of Mary Russell.

e-card 5 gun


The Murder of Mary Russell can be ordered as:

     A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

     An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

     A UK hardback from Waterstones, or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.

Mr Holmes introduces himself


Tomorrow…e-card 9 name is Holmes


The Murder of Mary Russell can be ordered as:

     A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

     An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

     A UK hardback from Waterstones, or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.