Novelist and biographer (English Music, 1992; Dickens, 1990) Ackroyd weighs in with a tale of murder from the teeming and wretched streets of 1880 London. In the book's opening pages, ex-actress Elizabeth Cree is hanged for the poisoning of her husband, John Cree: but far more hideous than Elizabeth's killing of him, as the reader (though not the police) quickly finds, have been the cold-blooded murders recently committed by John Cree himself, who once wanted to be a dramatist but now instead makes ""artistic"" tableaux of the body-parts of his victims by night, and, by day, pores over books in the Reading Room of the British Museum. As it happens, an aged Karl Marx sits on one side of Cree, a young George Gissing on the other: Marx is well acquainted with a victim-to-be (an aging Jewish scholar, whose subsequent death leads to the belief that an ""artificial being,"" a Golem, is the killer), and Gissing, through his marriage to a prostitute, is deeply entwined with the squalor, despair, and crime of London's poorest sections. Ackroyd is flawless in the lore and detail of period London, using diaries, court transcripts, and newspaper articles to unfold his tale, along with Elizabeth Cree's telling of her own life -- from illegitimate birth and grotesque childhood through her lucky discovery of London's world of musical theater, which leads to Elizabeth's stage career and allows Ackroyd to offer up still more lore of the time and bring on a cast of characters almost Dickensian (including Dan Leno, England's Charlie Chaplin of the day). If the novel's psychological drive proves thin, its social canvas is broadly, dutifully, and expertly drawn; and if its plot, especially after Elizabeth's marriage to Cree, seems cobbled, the pleasures of place and atmosphere remain. A forbiddingly enjoyable nougat, akin to The Waterworks and The Alienist, of horror and suffering and life the way they used to be.