This is a historical crime novel with a lot of flair, brilliant use of existing historical facts, and a shrewd appreciation of strong female characters. This is a second outing for the unconventional detective, Heloise Chancey, Victorian courtesan, social leader and forthright woman of her time. Not for the nervous reader, this is London in all its rat infested splendour, but with a healthy element of gracious living as Heloise is very good at what she does. The rather daring use of a notorious case from real life adds something to the story, as well as the main character’s unaccustomed domesticity in a good cause. Old experiences and terrors add to new passions and outrages to bring this modern historical novel a new perspective on Victorian life.
The book opens with Heloise and the faithful Amah preparing for a gathering of Heloise’s friends and acquaintances. Theirs is an unusual relationship; far more than the usual mistress and maid as they are intensely sensitive to each other’s feelings. This domestic scene is not the first thing however; a brutal discovery by a maid leaves the reader in no doubt that this will be a no holds barred book. The evening party to which various influential people have been invited is a little confusing in terms of names, but the disruption which occurs is unequivocal as Amah returns from an intriguing situation which has brought back memories of past traumas. The somewhat dramatic murder which she becomes involved in is only the start of a multi layered investigation in which frank and fulsome details are given, and there are several twists which almost made me drop the book with surprise. None of the senses are ignored as the smells, textures and feeling of life in the more sordid parts of London are evoked by this clever writer. This is in clear contrast with a claustrophobic account of a family home rent with suspicion.
As with the first book in the Heloise series, “She Be Damned”, this is an author who is determined that women will have the most significant roles. Most of the men in this book show signs of confusion in comparison. It has a strong narrative of mystery, betrayal and surprise; many murder mysteries are less complex! There are some shocking elements of murder and sex here, but they are admirably controlled and in context. There are small confusions over names and timing, but assumptions about women and class are admirably overturned. Heloise is a fascinating character in every sense, as despite much opposition she is determined to survive and flourish. Her composure is shown and maintained by her magnificent taste in clothes, jewellery and other accessories, and Tjia has obviously done much research into these areas. She also has a great sense of time and place, while avoiding most of the ‘Victorian life’ clichés. Altogether this is a good and compulsive read, full of atmosphere and at times foreboding, and a worthy second volume in this excellent series.
I was really pleased to receive an advanced copy of this book and am delighted to take part in the tour to promote it!