Along with Antonia Hodgson’s Thomas Hawkins books and Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett books, this is one of several new historical mystery series I have been enjoying over the last few years. It is set in Victorian London and follows the adventures of Leo Stanhope, an interesting, intelligent and likeable young man who has a secret he must keep hidden at all costs. This is the third book in the series and although you could certainly read it without having read the previous two (The House on Half Moon Street and The Anarchists’ Club), I do recommend getting to know Leo and his friends from the beginning if possible.
As The Butcher of Berner Street opens, we learn that Leo, formerly a coroner’s assistant, has a new job writing articles on science for the Daily Chronicle newspaper. He is enjoying the work and is grateful for the opportunity he has been given, but he longs for something more exciting to write about – something that will give him a front page headline. When he receives an anonymous note warning of a murder due to take place at a wrestling club in the East End of London that night, it seems Leo is about to get his wish. A murder does take place, although not quite in the way Leo had expected, and when suspicion falls on a Hungarian female wrestler, Irina Vostek, he must find a way to get the headlines he needs while making sure that Irina really is the killer.
I think The Butcher of Berner Street is my favourite of the three books in this series. The plot is well constructed and although I did guess who the murderer was, there were several possible suspects and enough twists and turns to give me a few doubts. More than the plot, though, I loved the setting, the atmosphere and the insights into various aspects of Victorian life: the class differences and the fate of those living in poverty, the early days of the women’s suffrage movement and attitudes towards the Catholic church.
Leo himself is a very compelling character; it’s no spoiler to tell you that although he has chosen to live as a man, he was born and raised as a girl before leaving home as a teenager and taking on a new identity, knowing that he could never be happy unless he had the freedom to be true to himself. Only one or two trusted friends know Leo’s secret and he lives in fear of anyone else finding out; life as a transgender man in the 19th century is not easy and he has heard stories of others who have been arrested and forced to undergo horrific ‘cures’. Although this book is first and foremost a mystery novel and not specifically a book about the experience of being trans, it does have an impact on the way Leo approaches solving the mystery, as he needs to avoid drawing too much attention to himself and risking being blackmailed or exposed. As well as Leo, there are lots of other recurring characters in the series and I enjoyed meeting them all again, particularly the pie maker Rosie Flowers and Alfie the pharmacist and his young daughter, Constance.
I don’t know whether there will be a fourth book in this series. This one has a proper ending, tying up some loose ends and not leaving too much unresolved, but I still hope to see Leo and his friends again soon!
Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.