I came across Australian author’s debut series novel “She Be Damned” in October last year. It introduced sleuth Heloise Chancey, a well-off courtesan in Victorian London who first time round helped out an aristocratic private detective with a case. I was very much struck by Heloise’s potential to lead a series. She is a strong, complex character with the ability, because of her background, to move fairly effortlessly through the strata of Victorian society. The debut was highly readable and I’ve had good feedback from readers since both from my review and at the library where I work.
Legend Press have just published the second novel in the series. There’s some grisly throat-cutting of a child found in an outhouse of her family home in Stoke Newington and later and much closer to home to Heloise with the weapon likely to have been stolen from her property. Circumstances suggest that these could be linked to Heloise’s origins and that her maid, Amah Li Leen’s past may hold the key.
There are two main plot strands here and things for me notched up a gear when Heloise goes undercover on the Lovejoy family estate, with its distinct echoes of the real life 1860 case of the Kent family from Somerset, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008). I do think, however, that compared to last time round Heloise feels more subdued as a character. This case does not allow her to sparkle in the same way and there is less of a feel for the times.
Second novel in and I’m not still not totally convinced by Amah Li Leen, an enigmatic character with much back story. I think I know why this is and it’s due to the changes in narrative style. Heloise’s narration is first person yet for Amah’s contribution to the plot M J Tjia chooses to switch to third-person, often mid-chapter, which disrupts the flow. I found myself having to re-read sections where Amah was central and this was not happening when Heloise was in charge. In future novels I’d love to see a strengthening of the dynamics between these two characters. At the end of this novel a trip to Venice is proposed which could forge these bonds away from the restrictions of London society.
I thought that whereas the last novel felt quite Dickensian in its influence that here we have more of a Wilkie Collins vibe. In fact it had more of a different feel to its predecessor than I was expecting. I still think there is a lot of potential in this series to continue with lots of facets of both lead characters to be explored. It is establishing itself nicely and those who like a historical feel to their crime should seek it out.
Thanks to Legend Press who sent me a review copy and have included me into the book’s blog tour. For other opinions on MJ Tjia and related info, take a look at the other sites in the tour.