The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve

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.

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

One of the first books I read this year was Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street, the first in a new mystery series set in Victorian London. I enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to meet its hero, Leo Stanhope, again. Now that I’ve read the second book, The Anarchists’ Club, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one just as much as the first. If you’re wondering whether it’s necessary to read the series in order, I don’t think it’s essential…you will have a better understanding of Leo and his background if you do, but otherwise both books work well as standalone mysteries.

Catching up with Leo again at the beginning of The Anarchists’ Club, it seems that not much has changed in his life. He is still renting a room above a pharmacy, still working as a hospital porter, still meeting his only friend Jacob for an occasional game of chess. One day he is helping out in the pharmacy when a woman comes in to buy some bromide. Lacking the money to pay, she asks for credit, but Leo refuses, telling her she will have to speak to the owner. It’s only a brief interaction but one which Leo will remember forever, because a few days later he receives a visit from the police. The woman, Dora Hannigan, has been murdered and a scrap of paper with Leo’s name and address on it has been found on her body.

Among the suspects is John Thackery, a man Leo knew many years ago – when he was quite literally a different person. If John makes his former identity known, the whole new life Leo has built for himself could be destroyed, so he agrees to give John an alibi in return for his silence. Has Leo done the right thing or is he allowing a murderer to walk free? The only way to be sure is to investigate the murder himself…

Leo’s investigations lead him to, as the title of the book suggests, a club of ‘anarchists and socialists’ with whom the dead woman had become involved. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t find out as much about these people and their work as I’d expected; although the division between the rich and poor in society is one of the book’s main themes, the mystery itself doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. As with the first novel, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of Leo himself. Although he is known as Leo Stanhope now, he grew up as Lottie Pritchard before deciding as a teenager that he could no longer continue living as a woman and denying who he really was. Being transgender in the 19th century is not easy and a few words from someone who knows the truth – someone like John Thackery – could ruin everything for him. For Leo, though, being true to himself is worth the risk and the danger. As I am not transgender myself and, as far as I know, Alex Reeve isn’t either, I can’t really say whether the portrayal of Leo and his thoughts and feelings is accurate or not, but it does feel believable to me.

The books are narrated by Leo in the first person and I find him a very likeable character. For obvious reasons, he tries not to attract too much attention to himself and has a quiet, unassuming nature. In this second novel, I loved his relationship with Aiden and Ciara, Dora Hannigan’s children, whom he befriends and tries to look after once it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to. This is particularly touching because there are so few people in Leo’s life whom he still cares about or who care about him, having become estranged from his parents and sister after making the decision to leave his life as Lottie behind.

I was also pleased to meet Rosie Flowers, the pie maker, again; I said earlier that Jacob is Leo’s only friend, but that’s not quite true because although Rosie and Leo exasperate each other at times, they formed a close bond during their investigation of the previous mystery and work together to try to solve this one as well. I’m hoping to see them both again in future books; I haven’t seen any news of a third Leo Stanhope mystery yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #3 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

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.