Bats in the Belfry: E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

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The Remedy: Michelle Lovric

★★★★

Venetian convents are famous above all things for their laxity, with sweets and cakes; visitors; fine fashions; and beautiful music. But the headstrong young woman we meet at the start of The Remedy isn’t interested in the things that come in to the convent, so much as in how to get out. She has been confined within the walls of S. Zaccaria by her noble parents, quite unfairly of course, after allegedly bringing shame on the family. Since good behaviour hasn’t made an ounce of difference to her prospects, bad behaviour might just be her ticket back out into the world. After all, everyone knows that discerning gentlemen can make donations to certain convents in exchange for the company of nuns. Such arrangements take place at S. Zaccaria and our narrator is confident that her well-bred beauty will find her a lover who’ll whisk her away. Alas! When her plans are betrayed, leaving her ruined and furious, our narrator’s prospects seem darker than ever. But then the state’s spymasters make her an offer she can’t refuse: to have her crimes wiped clean in return for service as one of their agents. A pitch-perfect tale of double-dealing, murder, sex, and opera in 18th-century Venice and London, written in sumptuous prose, this deeply satisfying period romp never quite lets you forget the grit under its fingernails.

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Blood Orange: Harriet Tyce

★★★

On the surface, Alison seems to have the perfect life: a successful career as a London barrister; a beloved daughter; and a kind, low-key husband who doesn’t mind picking up the slack. But scratch this veneer of prosperity and a very different picture emerges. Alison drinks too much. The pressures of work mean that she simply can’t be present in her daughter’s life. She’s let down her husband Carl one too many times and their marriage is on the brink of collapse. Oh, and she’s having a disastrous, humiliating affair with her solicitor Patrick. When Alison lands her first murder case, she believes that this vindicates her obsessive focus on work at the expense of her family – but her joy is short-lived. Someone begins sending her threatening text messages. Someone knows what she’s been doing. And someone is closing in on her.

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The Sealed Letter: Emma Donoghue

★★★★

When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

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Things in Jars: Jess Kidd

★★★★

A strange, sharp-toothed child, bleached of colour and trailing the scent of the sea. Sinister kidnappers. The ominous underbelly of London’s class of collectors, where even the most particular tastes can be indulged. A seven-foot-tall housemaid. And a dandyish pugilist ghost. In my first encounter with Jess Kidd’s writing, I was taken by the hand and led deep into a deliciously disturbing story, told in prose that sparkles with the cadences of an Irish brogue. At its heart there is Bridie Devine, a formidably down-to-earth woman who makes a speciality of taking on unusual mysteries – and who is about to encounter a case which will push her expertise to its limits, as well as forcing her to face up to a dark period of her own past. Blending Victorian Gothic with a roistering tale of London’s underworld, this is a deeply enjoyable adventure.

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The Man on the Middle Floor: Elizabeth S. Moore

★★★½

If Standard Deviation showed us a picture of a modern family dealing with autism in a compassionate, caring and progressive way, The Man on the Middle Floor offers a picture of what can happen when people don’t get the support they need. We zoom in on Kilburn, North London, where three people share a converted Victorian house. They live the typical atomised lives of Londoners, who are often strangers even to their neighbours. On the ground floor there’s Tam, invalided out of his beloved police force by a bullet to the leg and taking (far too much) solace from his local pub. Upstairs there’s Nick, determined to succeed at the challenge of living alone despite his Asperger’s. Finally, on the top floor, there’s Karen: specialist in autism, devoted to her work at the expense of her family, certain that her next article will finally bring her the recognition she deserves. Three lives, about to be linked in the most unexpected way.

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European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

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The English Monster: Lloyd Shepherd

★★★½

In December 1811, two horrific murders shocked London’s East End district of Wapping. The cloth merchant Thomas Marr and his family are found mutilated in their home: father, mother, shop-boy and baby. Mere days later, the Williamsons, proprietors of the King’s Head pub, suffer the same fate. Known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, these events really happened, as did the clumsy investigation by the Shadwell magistrates that followed. Lloyd Shepherd makes this the basis of his eerily compelling novel: an early police procedural mixed with an ominous ancient evil. As the people of Wapping clamour for justice, Constable Charles Horton of the River Thames Police Office – under the aegis of his ex-navy boss, John Harriott – embarks on an investigation that, before it ends, will have ushered him into the very darkest places of the human soul.

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The Grand Sophy: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

I’m currently ploughing through Deadhouse Gates, which really puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grimdark’, and needed something light and fluffy on the side. Enter Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a gorgeously warm-hearted story, with one of the most appealing Heyer heroines I’ve met so far. Having lost her mother as an infant, Sophia Stanton-Lacy has been brought up by her erratic diplomat father, Sir Horace. While most girls would be planning coming-out balls, Sophy has been playing hostess to officers and noblemen in Spain, Brussels and Paris. Capable, shrewd, game and compassionate, she makes friends easily and delights in helping those she loves – though her plots are rarely suitable for the faint-hearted. When Sir Horace is posted to Brazil, Sophy comes to stay with her aunt Lady Ombersley’s family in London. Expecting a poor little orphan, they are little prepared for the storm of personality that sweeps in among them. And this is only the beginning, for Sophy rapidly sees that her family have got themselves into a terrible tangle, which only she can solve…

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