This ""secret Victorian journal"" of 1851, ascribed to the young Wilkie Collins, recounts the adventures and investigations of Charles Dickens and Inspector William Field of the Metropolitan Protectives as they join forces to solve a particularly sordid pair of murders. The mystery begins straightforwardly, as Dickens and Collins, who met Field at a hanging two years before, accept his invitation to the examination of a stabbed corpse from the Thames: Dickens identifies the victim as the solicitor, theatrical angel, and notorious rake Partlow. The prostitute Irish Meg Sheehey describes Partlow's companions and is soon able to identify all four of them, including their leader, the sensualist-aesthete Lord Henry Ashbee, and Paroissien, the stage-manager who stabbed Partlow with the dagger from the Covent Garden production of Macbeth. But complications crop up unexpectedly when Dickens goes to Covent Garden to spy on Paroissien (Meg's testimony alone will never convict him) and gets called on to rescue ingÃ‰nue Ellen Ternan--and when Paroissien turns up dead, evidently murdered by Ellen just after raping her. The mystery elements here never pan out, but Palmer (a Dickens scholar turned novelist) provides a vivid survey of London lowlife--from Lady Godiva's House of Gentlemen's Entertainments to Ashbee's extensive library of pornography and secret ring of white slavers. And though narrator Collins never sounds like the author of all those novels, he starts an affair with Irish Meg that brings the conflict between lust and social repression to startling life. Don't read this for the mystery or pastiche, but for its ambivalent fascination with the other Victorians.