The House on Half Moon Street is both an interesting historical crime novel set in Victorian London and a sensitive exploration of what it means to be transgender in a less enlightened time. This is apparently the first in a planned series and I will certainly be looking out for the next one.
Our hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner’s assistant in 1880s London. As the novel opens, the body of a man washed up by the Thames has been brought to the hospital where Leo works. Identified as Jack Flowers and believed to have fallen into the river accidentally, the man’s death seems to be an unfortunate tragedy, but not something which affects Leo personally. However, the next body to arrive is that of a woman – a woman who happens to be the love of Leo’s life, Maria Milanes, and who appears to have been murdered.
Before her death, Maria was a prostitute at a brothel on Half Moon Street, but that didn’t matter to Leo. He loved her and knew that she loved him. Maria was one of the few people he had trusted with his secret, one of the few people who knew that Leo Stanhope was born Charlotte Pritchard. Now Maria is gone and Leo vows to find out who has killed her. Joining forces with pie maker Rosie, Jack Flowers’ widow, he begins to uncover some links between both deaths – but at the same time he must ensure that his own secret is not uncovered, because the truth could have serious consequences.
On one level, as I’ve said, this is a compelling and well-constructed murder mystery. Although I found the pace a bit slow at times, I did enjoy watching Leo move around Victorian London, looking for clues in the Half Moon Street brothel, playing chess with his friend Jacob and word games with his landlord’s daughter in the pharmacy where he lodges, or paying a visit to the midwife and abortionist Madame Moreau, whom he hopes may be able to shed some light on the situation. All of these people and locations are vividly described and all play their part in Leo’s investigations.
Leo himself is easy to like and to warm to; he narrates his story in the first person, letting us into his mind and his heart. I know things are not perfect for transgender people today and that they still face a lot of prejudice, obstacles and challenges, but I can hardly imagine how difficult life must have been for people like Leo who lived more than a hundred years ago. I admired him for his courage in being true to himself and not just continuing to be someone he was not; I was sorry for the sacrifices he’d had to make in adopting his true male identity and the lack of support he received from those he should have been able to rely on; and I was afraid for him too, because he is in such a vulnerable position.
I should warn you that due to the nature of the story, the type of mystery it is and Leo’s vulnerability, the novel does become very dark in places. Although I didn’t find it unnecessarily graphic or violent, there are still a few scenes which are quite disturbing. The Victorian era was certainly not the safest time in which to live if you were seen as different in any way. I’m sure Leo will have more ordeals to go through as the series progresses, but I hope there will be some happiness in store for him too.
Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.