Caleb on Price, 'Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction'

Cheryl Blake Price
Amanda M. Caleb

Cheryl Blake Price. Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019. viii + 195 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1391-9.

Reviewed by Amanda M. Caleb (Misericordia University) Published on H-Albion (December, 2019) Commissioned by Patrick J. Corbeil (St. Mary's University, Calgary)

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In Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction, Cheryl Blake Price offers a refreshing consideration of poison within Victorian fiction, from L. E. L.’s Ethel Churchill (1837) to L. T. Meade’s fin de siècle detective fiction. Although there is already considerable research in this area—most notably by Ian A. Burney and Andrew Mangham—Price distinguishes her work through a consideration of what she terms the “chemical criminal,” a figure distinct from poisoners in their scientific knowledge of how to make poisons in their own homes and from easily accessible materials. Refocusing crime fiction on the criminal and not the detective allows Price to offer a more nuanced understanding of how scientific professionalization was imagined and challenged in fiction (particularly with regard to gender), and how that professionalization informed genre experimentation within crime fiction. In her introduction, Price articulates this double function of the chemical criminal through Jacques Derrida’s work on pharmakon, noting that poison, as a chemical compound, was both medicinal and poisonous: it is this indistinctness that similarly frames the instability of generic margins, which allows for genre experimentation and fluidity within crime fiction. As Blake Price notes in the afterword, Chemical Crimes demonstrates how “Victorian crime fiction poisons and is poisoned—both in relation to this fiction’s ambivalence toward science and in how its genres are always already impure” (p. 177).

In articulating her argument about crime fiction and genre experimentation, Price organizes her book by genre and texts that challenge these genres: Silver Fork and Newgate, sensation fiction, detective fiction, and science fiction. While this structure risks undermining an argument about the impurity and instability of genre, Price resolves this by using a formulaic approach in each chapter in which she establishes the texts as both of a specific genre and straying from it in their use of chemical crime. In other words, what distinguishes each of the texts Price examines is that it undermines the very generic conventions that defines it, which she frames within historical discussions of criminal uses of poison. By organizing the chapters in such a manner, Price deftly applies Derrida’s pharmakon to prove the fluidity of genre, which she attributes to the authors’ engagement with and questioning of scientific authority—and which parallels a text belonging to and moving away from an established genre.

Price begins with a discussion of Silver Fork fiction’s influence on Newgate fiction, a connection that has been largely overlooked. Known for its depiction of upper-class lives and their maritial relationships, Silver Folk fiction has little obvious connection to Newgate fiction, which depicted the lives of criminals. In pairing L. E. L.’s Ethel Churchill (1837) with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Lucretia (1846), Price makes a compelling argument about the influence of the former on the latter (particularly given the authors’ close friendship), which represents both the influence of women’s writing on Newgate novels and the contemporary interest in women’s scientific education. Both texts challenge the gendered conventions of their respective genres through their engagement with women who are trained by male scientists to be chemical criminals, which Price concludes indicates a condemnation both of women engaging in science and the system that undermines women’s capabilities.

The duality of this conclusion indicates how science sought to control women via access to knowledge. This conclusion is complicated in the following chapter on Ellen Wood’s “Mr. Castonel” (1857) and Lord Oakburn’s Daughters (1864). Although Price shifts the focus from poisoning wives to poisoning doctors, the context is largely the same: medicine (like science) seeks to control women, in this case within the domestic sphere. Thus, the poisoning doctors are representative of medicine’s control over female bodies. At the same time, by having her female characters expose the poisoning doctors, Wood empowers them to challenge this medical overreach into the Victorian home, which Price argues demonstrates how the novel transcends the distinctions of sensation fiction and medical gothic to become what she proposes as “medical sensation fiction” (p. 102). This recategorizing is compelling and certainly fits with claims made by other scholars of sensation fiction. However, the recategorization of Wood’s works within such a delineated genre undermines Price’s argument about genre subversion and is ultimately a weakness in an otherwise persuasive chapter. In other wrods, reconstituting a new genre undermines the very notion of undermining genre.

In her third chapter, Price moves to the expected genre of detective fiction, pairing the lesser-known The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-63) by Charles Warren Adams with Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) through their shared interest in mesmerism. Her approach, however, is pleasingly unexpected: rather than focus on the detective and the repeated claims that detective fiction demonstrated a faith in forensic science, Price argues that these works indicate anxiety about scientific abilities and certitude. By pairing science with mesmerism, these works present the limitations of science’s ability to deal with unruly bodies, thus revealing how the ratiocination that defines detective fiction is “poisoned with contradiction, unruliness, and ambiguity” (p. 138). This dismantling of the expected conventions and scientific certainty of the detective novel makes it Price’s strongest argument of genre subversion.

The failings of science in Adams’s and Collins’s works are countered in Price’s fourth chapter, which considers the female mad scientists in Meade’s The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1898) and The Sorceress of the Strand (1902-3). As hybrid New Women-mad scientists, Madame Koluchy and Madame Sara are able to elude the pursuing men in the texts because of their scientific abilities and the men’s underestimation of these very abilities. Thus, as Price concludes, “the blending of the female chemical criminal with the mad scientist completely collapses the boundary that was supposed to divide women from science” (p. 142). As a concluding chapter for Chemical Crimes, it allows Price to come full circle in her afterword to point out how chemical crimes disintegrate gender/genre divisions, concluding that crime fiction was a means for Victorian writers to explore the indistinctness of science’s creative and destructive powers.

Chemical Crimes is a thoughtful and engaging study of Victorian science and fiction that would will be of use to literary scholars and historians alike. Price’s methodology is clear and consistently used, her analysis is thorough, and her argument offers a novel way of rethinking how Victorian crime fiction writers reflected upon the helpful and harmful nature of science.

Citation: Amanda M. Caleb. Review of Price, Cheryl Blake, Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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