Raven Books | 2018 (3 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1880 and Leo Stanhope, assistant to a coroner in London, is in love. It doesn’t matter to him that his love Maria works as a prostitute in Mrs Brafton’s brothel on Half Moon Street. Leo knows that Maria loves him and he has proof. She knows Leo as he really is – a man who was born a girl called Charlotte or Lottie. But Lottie grew up knowing that there was no future for Charlotte the woman. There could only be Leo the man. Very few know Leo’s secret, which is just as well because a woman dressed as a man is committing a criminal offence. But all of Leo’s hopes for the future are shattered when Maria is found dead, murdered, and Leo is a chief suspect. With his heart broken, Leo must discover the truth but in doing so he learns how little he really knew the love of his life.
At the heart of The House on Half Moon Street is its vulnerable and yet immensely courageous transgender hero, Leo Stanhope. He’s so easy to warm to, and fear for, as he lets us into his secrets, we watch him mould his body, suppress his appetite to remain unfeminine, meet with friends who could destroy him with one careless word. The narrative is in the first person and so we know only too well just how much he loves Maria while we also suspect that this relationship is never going to end well. And we worry for him when we watch him risk absolutely everything to chase her killer.
So on one level this is a Victorian murder mystery and it’s a very good one. But on another level it’s an emotional portrait of Leo Stanhope who lived at a time when there must have seemed little hope for someone like him. At times the narrative takes us into very dark places indeed and there is one moment in particular which I found difficult to cope with, that contrasted so sharply with the tone of much of the rest of the novel. And so at times the novel does seem to straddle different worlds. Inevitably, it also reminded me of the much loved Jem series by E.M. Thomson. But there is so much feeling in The House on Half Moon Street that it is impossible not to warm to Leo, who is so beautifully drawn and brought to life, and fear for his situation. But there is more to this novel than Leo’s situation. It also reflects on the situation of London’s poorest women, including its prostitutes.
The portrayal of Victorian London is fantastic. We move around a fair bit of it and I really enjoyed where it it takes us but the best of scenes are reserved for Mrs Brafton’s brothel as well as the evenings Leo spends playing chess with his closest friend. But I particularly liked the moments Leo spends with his landlord and his young daughter. There is such a life to these scenes, although the thought of the landlord practising his dentistry skills is not a comforting one. I loved the lightness and humour of these pages, which do a fine job, I think, of breaking up the darkness.
The House on Half Moon Street is a really enjoyable and at times quite intense portrayal of life in London in the 1880s for poor women and for those who challenged Victorian conceptions of sexuality and gender identity. Leo is an intriguing hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The House on Half Moon Street is Alex Reeve’s debut novel and is, I’m delighted to say, the first of a new series. I’m really pleased that Leo will return.