The Blood Flower by Alex Reeve

The Blood Flower is the fourth book – and sadly, the last – in Alex Reeve’s Leo Stanhope mystery series. I’ve been following this series since the first book was published and am sorry there won’t be any more to look forward to, but the author has stated that he has achieved what he set out to achieve with these novels and is ready to move on to other things.

The four novels in this series all work as standalone mysteries, but if you want to get to know Leo properly and understand his history and relationships with the other characters, I would recommend starting with The House on Half-Moon Street and reading the books in order if you can.

In The Blood Flower, set in the late Victorian period, Leo and his wife, Rosie, are heading for the south coast of England, where Leo, in his position of journalist with a London newspaper, has been asked to cover a murder case in Portsmouth. Rosie’s sister, Viola, happens to live in Portsmouth with her husband and Leo is looking forward to seeing them for the first time – but Rosie seems strangely reluctant for him to meet his in-laws. He doesn’t have too much time to wonder about this, however, because work must come first and soon Leo is being updated by the local police on the deaths of two young people, both found by the Portsmouth docks with their throats slit.

When Sergeant Dorling dismisses the two victims as misfits and outcasts and seems more concerned with how Leo is planning to portray the police in his newspaper article, Leo knows that if the murderer is going to be brought to justice he will have to solve the mystery himself. His investigations lead him to the notorious Papaver nightclub and a circus at the New Hippodrome theatre in search of the mysterious Blood Flower which seems to have played a part in both murders. But Leo has a secret of his own: he was born and raised as Charlotte Pritchard, before leaving his old life behind to live as the man he knows he really is. Only his closest friends know he is transgender, but if this information falls into the wrong hands he could find himself in serious danger.

I think this is the best book in the series; I enjoyed it even more than the last one, The Butcher of Berner Street. The Portsmouth setting makes a nice change from the Victorian London of the previous three books and Alex Reeve brings it vividly to life, with a contrast between the tourist areas with their colourful beach huts, bathing machines and shops selling postcards, and the darker side of the city which is where most of the story is played out. It was good to meet some of Leo’s old friends again – the actor Peregrine Black; Alfie the pharmacist and his young daughter, Constance; the elderly Jacob and his wife, Lilya – but moving the action away from London also allows Leo to meet lots of new people. Of the new characters, one I found particularly interesting was Olga Brown, or Miss La La, a black acrobat from Prussia and a real historical figure (her portrait was painted by Edgar Degas).

Leo himself continues to be a very likeable and engaging narrator, liable to make mistakes or say and do the wrong thing, but that only makes him feel more human. His transgender status is just one part of who he is and never really dominates the story; this, like the other books in the series, is a mystery novel first and foremost and the mystery is always at the centre of the plot. It’s quite a complex one and there are some interesting twists and turns towards the end as we discover what the Blood Flower is and who was responsible for the murders. Once the mystery was solved, I was sorry to have to say goodbye to Leo and his friends but I respect the author’s decision to move on and will be interested to see what he writes next!

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

This is book 43/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.