The sugarhouses that dotted Whitechapel in the 19th century are at the center of the mystery in Turnbull House. I was pleasantly surprised by how easily 19th century sugar production on the East End brought together three of the subplots. Even better, though, was the potential for shuddersome imagery. I was almost sad I hadn’t started this series out as steampunk. Here’s a bit from a section where Ira Adler and Andrew St. Andrews find themselves creeping about a burnt-out sugarhouse.
(Also, wouldn’t Whitechapel Sugarhouse make a great band name?)
From Turnbull House by Jess Faraday
Expected release: February 2014
(c) 2013 Jess Faraday
“I first came here a few days ago, after it occurred to me that the two refinery deaths might be related,” St. Andrews said as his carriage pulled to a stop on Flower and Dean Street, near the sugarhouse where Rudolf Lothar had met his untimely end.
We stepped out of the carriage into an eerie and silent darkness. It had been several days since the explosion, but the tenants hadn’t yet been allowed to return to the surrounding buildings, and the factory would likely remain shuttered until someone tore it down. The refinery occupied almost an entire side of the street, and fully half of it had been destroyed by the explosion and subsequent fire. If I covered one eye, the untouched brick walls and smokestack on the right side gave the impression that workers would be streaming back in the very next morning. Covering the other eye, the moonlight revealed a black crater plunging down two stories and surrounded by charred rubble and the jagged remains of walls.
“The papers speculate that the sugar dust in the air is what made the explosion so violent,” St. Andrews continued as we approached the pit. “You can see for yourself that it started in the basement. That’s where they do the melting and refining. It’s incredibly hot and not at all well ventilated. Well, not before the explosion, anyway.”
“Sugar dust?” I asked.
“Once they bleach and dry the raw sugar, they put it in piles—huge piles, all the way up to the ceiling—until it can be packed for market. That basement had to have been filled with dust.”
“They pile it on the floor?” My thoughts turned immediately to rats, insects and the street-filth brought inside on the soles of workers’ boots. “I’ll take my tea without from now on.”
“A wise course of action in any event. But I suggest we keep our eyes open for things that don’t belong in a sugar refinery—things which might give us a clue about what Lothar, Backer and Goddard were doing.”
I nodded. “Chloroform. A centrifuge. That’s what Goddard told Sudworth. Weird residues, maybe. Chemicals.”
“Assuming the explosion was even caused by their little project,” he said.
“It happened late at night. No one should have been running machinery at that time.”
“All the same, the blast destroyed half the building. I shouldn’t put my hopes up too high. How do you propose we make our way down?”
That was a good question. I glanced down the vertiginous drop just inches from my toes and began to sway. St. Andrews closed a hand around my shoulder and pulled me back a step.
“Perhaps we should let ourselves in through the back entrance. If I remember correctly, there’s a central staircase that may not have been affected by the blast.”
I followed him around the remains of the walls to the outbuilding attached to the rear of the refinery. The door was chained shut and secured with a stout padlock.
“Don’t suppose you have a match,” I said, feeling for my picklocks.
St. Andrews grinned. “Never fear. I came prepared.”
Of course he had. Because one cannot flit about in a deerstalker cap and Inverness cape without also carrying a mahogany-and-porcelain calabash pipe and its associated accessories. Fortunately for both of us, the pipe wasn’t just an affectation. Putting the stem between his teeth for safekeeping, St. Andrews lit a match and held it while I addressed myself to the padlock securing the door.
The lock looked stronger than it was. I popped it on the first try then eased the chains down quietly and let us inside. A lantern hung on the wall inside near the door. I took it down and lit it. The flame flickered to life, casting a dim glow onto walls black and sticky with sugary residue. Even after five days, the air was clammy and sweet, and smelt of damp, chemicals, and char.
“Are those icicles?” I asked, raising the lantern toward the sharp stalactites hanging from the blackened ceiling beams.
“Sugar,” St. Andrews said. “Though I shouldn’t break it off and eat it, if I were you.”
We passed a great copper cauldron so large it required a ladder to peer over the top then walked into the narrow, low-roofed passage that led to the main building. The walls and ceiling of the passage were covered in coils, ducts, springs and sprockets—mysterious machinery now still, which looked vaguely sinister by lantern-light. I tickled open the lock securing the main building and we tiptoed inside.