I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London. I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means. From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.
Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia. This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas. Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases. Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story. As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.
In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times. Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.
Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries. Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like. I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.
There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London. It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here.
All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups. I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.
She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017. Many thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.