Tag Archives: Victorian

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Hello! Before I begin, I must apologise for the lack of reviews in recent weeks. I am suffering from a bad back injury that has made reading and concentrating very difficult. I am beginning to start to feel hopeful that I might be on the mend! So keep everything crossed. I have turned to audiobooks, which, as they have done in the past, provide comfort and company. I have finished a few books over August as a result and so the reviewing should pick up from now on. Excuses over, on with the review!

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de MurielThe Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2022 (4 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Evil has returned to Victorian Edinburgh. Body snatchers are busier than ever, feeding the frenzy for autopsy theatre. But one night the body snatchers are disturbed and the corpse is recovered, a mark of the devil on its skin. It had not been there before. That same night a patient is murdered in Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum. An identical symbol is marked on the walls. The prime suspect is a young woman, another inmate, indeed considered possessed. She is Amy (or Pansy) McGray, found guilty of killing her parents with an axe, also wounding her brother, Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray. It is up to McGray, and his long-suffering former associate Inspector Ian Frey, to prove her innocence, right the wrongs of the past and solve the mystery of the sign of the devil.

The Frey and McGray series has been a joy to read over the last few years. Surely, these are the most perfect examples of Victorian melodrama and mystery. Sadly, with this, the seventh novel, the series comes to an end. It is very much a conclusion to the series, looking back to the beginning and coming to terms with the event that has cast a shadow from the start – the murder of McGray’s family and the confinement of his sister, now mute and troubled. All of which means that this is not a stand alone novel, nor is it the one to start with. INstead, go back to the beginning and Strings of Murder.

I love these characters. The very tartan McGray and the extremely English Frey are a great double act. Much of the time we see McGray through Frey’s eyes and his exasperation, and McGray’s constant teasing, are hugely entertaining. These are dark books, dealing with diabolical crimes, but they are also very funny.

There has always been an element of the supernatural in these novels. McGray is a firm believer in such things as devils and witches and he always gets the unsolvable cases that nobody else wants. Frey is the opposite. He believes in logic and deduction. But combined they have a habit of working things out. They also have a habit of getting stabbed. Frey is especially scarred by their earlier cases. No wonder he’s not keen to work with McGray again. But there is something about McGray’s sister that pulls these two men together to clear her name.

I love the depiction of Victorian Edinburgh. I don’t know the city and so can’t vouch for the accuracy but it is so atmospherically drawn, by night and by day. The surrounding countryside seems both beautiful and threatening and the grand houses hide sinister secrets. The crimes are gruesome. It is also a place of science and education.

The Sign of the Devil brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion. If you’ve not read any of the books, then this is the perfect time to start, knowing that it’s complete. I will miss Ian and Nine-Nails. I’m also intrigued to see where the author, the very talented Oscar de Muriel, turns his attention next.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Darker Arts
The Dance of the Serpents

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

I must start this review with a bit of an apology. I’ve fallen behind with reviews because I’m currently unwell, with orders to rest, walk a lot and eat a lot, so the upshot is that I’m now daunted by the reviewing task ahead of me! Not helped, of course, by the fact that I’m reading like a reading ninja. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I do a series of short reviews. There are some books I really want you to read and I don’t want to hold you up!

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2021 (28 October) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commander by Paul Fraser CollardEgypt, 1869. Jack Lark is working as an official agent for the Consul-General but he is bored. The chance for adventure and purpose comes when he meets the famous explorer Sir Samuel White Baker, who has been engaged by the Pasha of Egypt to lead an expedition into the Sudan to eradicate the slave trade and open the area to commerce. It will be an arduous journey. The danger posed by smugglers and slavers will be more than equalled by the horrendous conditions of travelling up the crocodile-infested Nile into deepest Africa with the water levels dropping by the day. Jack Lark cannot wait.

Commander is the tenth novel by Paul Fraser Collard to feature Jack Lark, an enigmatic man of inscrutable feelings, with a taste for disguise, a need to protect his heart, and a great skill with the rifle and sword. He is a born leader, despite the London slums of his birth. But Jack is getting on in years. There are more aches and pains than there used to be. He should take it easy. But he really doesn’t want to do that. Although the tenth, there’s no actual need to go back to the beginning if you haven’t met Jack before, other than that you would be in for a treat.

This is a novel full of adventure and excitement, whether that’s because of the scenes of hand to hand combat, or from the drama of Lark, his men and the crew trying to inch the expedition vessels through the clogged up, narrow Nile, watched by reptile eyes. There is also violence and there were scenes I had to skim over. I am rather squeamish. As usual, there is also female interest but these women have no need of Jack Lark. They have their own role to play in the story.

Jack Lark is one of my favourite fictional heroes and it’s good to see him back. I loved the Nile setting and for me that’s the stand out feature of this excellent addition to the series.

Other reviews
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire

The True Soldier
The Rebel Killer
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’


Nightshade by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2021 (15 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightshade by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and apothecary Jem Flockhart, with the help of close friend Will Quartermaine, decides to restore her physic garden. The project is intended as a distraction, a relaxation, for Will who is recuperating after serious illness. The garden was originally designed by Jem’s late mother, Catherine Underhill, a woman who was every bit as fascinated by poisons and medicinal plants as Jem. But Jem and Will’s digging disturbs the past when they uncover the remains of a body buried years before, clearly murdered, under a bush of deadly nightshade. Jem feels compelled to investigate, little knowing that these actions will ignite a new series of murders with each victim found with deadly nightshade berries in their mouths and each connected to the garden. Jem finds herself on a painfully personal journey as she descends into a world of poisons, exotic plants, memories, murder and madness.

It’s hard to believe that Nightshade is the fifth Jem Flockhart novel. I’ve read and loved these books from the beginning and this one is, I think, my favourite. You can read it without having read the others but I think in many ways it represents the fulfilment of the past. Jem’s character – a girl brought up as a boy and now living and working as a man – is fully evolved, we’ve witnessed the events that have shadowed her recent years, the murders of friends and colleagues, the establishment of her role as apothecary, part of a medical community, and an investigator of murder – it’s now time to learn more about her mysterious mother who died when Jem was an infant. Jem doesn’t like people getting too close to her past and to herself. Her gender is her biggest secret. But, in this case, there is nowhere to hide.

The captivating story mixes with the past as we read extracts from the journal kept by Catherine Underhill as she undertook a botanical expedition to India alongside some extraordinary women, completely out of step with society’s expectations for their gender. Once they are away from England, they leave that corseted world behind and enter another place, which is exotic, intoxicating. This is brilliantly evoked by E.S. Thomson and it complements perfectly Jem’s London, which is also heady with poisons, poverty, dirt, depravity, a place in which people can drive themselves mad. There are some incredible scenes where Jem and Will encounter the insane, secrets locked away within. The cast of characters in this novel are fabulous – each is fascinating and most are disturbing, even frightening.

Victorian London is vividly portrayed. The novel (and series) is full of historical medical and botanical knowledge. The book is enriched by its detail. At the heart of all of this, though, is Jem, who seems lost, vulnerable and at risk. There is only so much protection Will can provide. I urge you to read this superb series, with its ingenious tales of murder and murderers, and get to know Jem, one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Surgeons’ Hall

Fugitive by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2020 (20 August) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

It is 1868 and Jack Lark – The Captain – has returned to England from the American Civil War, a conflict in which he served on both sides, experiencing the very worst of it. He’s now resumed business in the rough part of London, fleecing the rich and foolish who are after a ‘good time’. To be fair, they usually get it but it doesn’t always go to plan. When one venture fails spectacularly, Jack has no choice but to flee the country. In what is perfect timing, an old friend and fellow ex-officer, Macgregor offers Jack a place on his treasure-hunting expedition to Abyssinia, along with Macgregor’s academic friend, Watson. The British Army is about to take on Abyssnia’s mad and terrifying emperor Tewodros and attack his stronghold of Magdala. And while they’re doing that, there will be plenty of chance for Jack, Macgregor and Watson to help themselves to Tewodros’ loot. If only it would prove to be that simple. Jack Lark is about to enter a hell on earth and he will have to fight for his life to escape it.

Fugitive is the ninth novel in Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark series and it’s great to see Jack again. It has been a pleasure watching Jack’s rather roguish career develop over a fair few years. The man has been changed by his battles and adventures across Victoria’s empire and further beyond. These are books that you can pick up and enjoy as stand alone novels, so you don’t need to have read all or some of the earlier books first. I’m not much of a reader of American Civil War fiction and so I missed the last novel and now I’m delighted to see Jack back on his old turf and then in Abyssinia. Jack really suits places such as this – it’s unfamiliar, exotic, hot and dusty, horrendously hard and he faces a truly horrific villain.

This is exciting stuff and Jack Lark soon finds himself in the midst of it. The opening chapters of the novel are set in London’s East End but, far from being just a prelude, this section is absolutely brilliant! I love how the author writes and he really brings Whitechapel of the 1860s to life and it is most certainly every bit as unpleasant, violent and fetid as you’d hope. This is so well done. And when the action moves to Abyssinia the pace and compelling action continues. This is no sentimental tale. When people die, they stay dead and we know it could happen to anyone. Jack knows that, too. The descriptions of battle are exhilarating, thrilling and knowledgeable.

Jack strictly controls how much of himself he gives away. He has always hidden behind a disguise of some sort or another. He’s just the same here. Occasionally, though, it will slip as it increasingly does here with the intriguing Watson. So there’s a depth of character – we know Jack so well now – but there are also a host of other characters to enjoy, albeit more fleetingly, such as Jack’s sidekick Cooper. The mad Emperor is also a scene stealer and not necessarily for the best of reasons. What a nasty bit of work.

I listened to the audiobook read by Dudley Hinton. The narrator does a brilliant job of immersing the listener in this world, making the danger and tension even more real. Possibly it was a little too gory for me in places and there was a bit too much cussing for my sensitive nature (this is particularly in your face in the audiobook, probably less so in the treebook). But, nevertheless, I thought the audiobook was excellent and added a whole new level of drama and immersion to the experience of reading a Jack Lark adventure.

Jack Lark is one of my very favourite characters in fiction and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him again in what is one of the very best of the series. If you haven’t read any of the others, you will find so much to enjoy in Fugitive, not least Paul Fraser Collard’s wonderful writing and a character in Jack Lark who deserves it. And what a stunning cover!

Other reviews and features
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
The True Soldier
The Rebel Killer
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2020 (20 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de MurielThe Dance of the Serpents is the sixth novel in the fabulous Frey and McGray series. Whereas others were more self-contained, this novel does rely on you having read previous books, especially the second (A Fever of the Blood), and so I would recommend you do that before reading this review. Suitably warned, I shall continue!

The Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly, a subdivision of Edinburgh’s police force and hidden away in its basement, is in trouble. It’s run by English inspector Ian Frey and his boss, the Scottish and tartan clad ‘Nine Nails’ McGray and, quite apart from being an embarrassment to their superiors, they are now discovering that killing Queen Victoria’s favourite witch and medium (in a previous book presenting their cases) may well seal their fate. The Queen is after their blood, aided and abetted by her particularly unpleasant Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and his thugs. The two detectives are given an ultimatum – they must find Queen Victoria a new witch before Christmas Eve, the night when Victoria likes to communicate with Prince Albert, or they’ll be secretly executed. Unfortunately, this is only a few days away. With the help of a cursed young woman who is pursued by vengeful witches and the less than forthcoming assistance of McGray’s taumatised and silent sister, McGray and Frey undertake a pursuit of witches across England and Scotland, to distant islands and palaces. And all the time, the clock ticks.

I am such a huge fan of this series and have loved each of them. The Dance of the Serpents is no different but it is a little different from the previous books in that there isn’t a particular case to solve just a situation to correct, which puts our heroes in a great deal of danger. It also very much depends on the reader having enjoyed the previous novels, which is no difficulty whatsoever as these are addictive reads. But what makes these books so fantastic is every bit as evident here – the characters of Frey and McGray.

The personalities of our two detectives, so opposite to one another in absolutely every way, and the banter between them is brilliant and so many times I burst out laughing. The situations they find themselves in can be ridiculously weird and terrifyingly dangerous, not helped by the fact that even the supernatural wants to do them in, and we are engrossed. We’ve spent a few years with them now. We know them well but we are also well aware that there’s a lot more to learn from them. Maybe they don’t quite trust us yet. But on occasion they let down the barriers and there are glimpses of feeling, even, dare I say, friendship between the two men. That doesn’t stop McGray calling Frey names. Frey is our narrator and so his frustration and bewilderment at his partner in solving supernaturally-tinged crimes is extremely amusing.

I love the locations as well and they are particularly evocative in The Dance of the Serpents as we head across Scotland on the trail of the witches to the Orkneys – which isn’t great because Nine Nails gets seasick just walking the gangway on to a boat. I love the places which are so moodily and atmospherically described. And then there’s the other world of palaces when we find ourselves in Victoria’s extraordinary presence. What a fabulous chapter that is!

These books are always a delight and I loved The Dance of the Serpents. I really enjoy the late Victorian setting and then the blend of crime and supernatural possibilities and shivers. Oscar de Muriel writes so well. I love how he portrays his characters, male and female. They are larger than life in many ways and they’re all the more fun to read. His witches are terrifying…. just how I like them. Excellent!

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead
The Darker Arts

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (14 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire NorthIn 1884, English medical doctor William Abbey was in Natal in South Africa and stood by while a young boy was beaten and burnt to death by a mob in front of his eyes. He stood by and did nothing. His mother, who held her murdered child Langa in her arms as he died, looked into Abbey’s eyes and cursed him. Forever now, William Abbey will be pursued by the shadow of Langa. Wherever he flees, Langa will always follow him and will find him. Every time he catches Abbey, a person dearly loved by the doctor will die. The first person who dies is Abbey’s dear sister. Abbey must now frantically keep one step ahead of his relentless, terrible shadow to keep alive everyone he loves, while never daring to love again. He embarks on an endless journey that takes him across Africa and back to Europe and beyond, even to India, culminating in the trenches of France in 1917, where the novel begins. It’s as he travels that Abbey discovers another side to the curse. He can see the secrets in the heart of people around him and when Langa gets very close he is unable from shouting them out. It’s terrifying.

Claire North is one of my very favourite writers and has been ever since I read the first novel published under this name back in 2014, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a tremendous novel. One of the top reads I’ve had in 2019 is The Gameshouse, one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and so it was a joy to discover that we were to have another novel by Claire North this year. William Abbey, like all of these books, has the most fantastic premise, which really appealed to my love of speculative fiction. It’s a mesmerising idea. But, again as with the other books, this premise is explored to throw light on something else, something dark, something significant, and in William Abbey that something else is colonialism

What Abbey witnesses in South Africa, and also in India, is appalling and he cannot escape it because the truth is pursuing him – across oceans, mountains and deserts. We witness cruelty and prejudice, great injustice and terrible anger and sadness. Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency working across the British Empire who need men such as Abbey to discover the truth about what their targets are thinking. This is dangerous as it means he has to allow Langa to get very close indeed. It’s no way to live if Abbey can be said to be living any kind of life at all.

Abbey himself is an intriguing character. He’s a man caught in his time who sees it at its worst which means he’s hard to warm to, or like, even while we try to understand him. He narrates the novel, we experience his world through his eyes, we feel the terror and the fear, as well as the guilt. One of the most fascinating elements of the book is when Abbey meets other men and women like him and learns some of the reasons behind their curses. This can be troubling but also heartbreaking as Abbey learns why people cannot forget the past, why it must continue to live through them, through their curse. So many lessons to learn, so much to atone for.

This is a disturbing tale and there is a lot of empire to cover. One drawback of this for me is that I found there was an element of repetition, perhaps inevitably due to the structure and endless chase of the novel. This also led to a bit of a lag in the middle. Nevertheless, while William Abbey isn’t my favourite Claire North book, it is still an excellent and significant novel with some extremely powerful sections of prose. Claire North is a fine writer who impresses time after time. What an extraordinary imagination she has and how gifted she is at telling us her stories. I look forward to reading every single one of them.

For another review of William Abbey, please do take a look at David’s excellent review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
The Gameshouse

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Canongate | 2019 (29 August) | 416p | Review copy | Read the book

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

It is 1850 and Edinburgh is a leading city in the world of medical science but all is not well in the city. Many patients are falling suddenly ill, dying without obvious cause, while Dr James Simpson’s career is being threatened by rumour and scandal. Simpson’s protégé Will Raven has now returned from Berlin where his medical training has been completed. Now a qualified doctor he is ready to work alongside Simpson and to work with the former housemaid Sarah Fisher to clear the name of the man who has given them both so much. But Raven has left the continent under a cloud and it hangs over him while his relationship with Sarah will now be further tested. But Raven and Sarah are beginning to realise that a ruthless killer is loose in the city and it’s up to them to end it before more lives are taken.

The Art of Dying is the second novel by Ambrose Parry to feature Raven and Sarah. I’m sorry to say that I’ve yet to read the first novel The Way of All Flesh. This didn’t affect my enjoyment in The Art of Dying at all but, although its mystery is self-contained, it did mean that I didn’t know the history between Raven and Sarah and I think that if you do know these two already, then you will be delighted to encounter them again. They are wonderful characters. There’s a sense that Will Raven has changed. Perhaps he’s grown up a little but he still fights a battle within himself. He is a man of medicine, a doctor works to save lives, but he’s taken them, too.

Sarah is harder to know and she has more to endure. She is, for me, the most fascinating character in the novel. Through Sarah we explore the life of a Victorian woman, a Victorian wife who wants nothing more than to be a doctor herself, not a nurse but a physician. She is tested in the cruellest of ways while finding support, unexpectedly, from Will Raven.

I loved the historical medical insight that can be found throughout the novel. These were exciting days as such things as chloroform were becoming more widely used, pioneered by James Simpson in Edinburgh. Simpson and Raven are obstetricians, which means we see the happiness and grief of female health, pregnancy and childbirth in Victorian Britain. It forms such an effective and at times quite emotional backdrop to this tale of murder which threatens the foundations of medical science at this most significant point in its development.

The Art of Dying is an excellent Victorian crime novel, which mixes in comment on the position of women in 19th-century society (and medicine) with a a great deal of gripping plot. I may have missed the first novel in this series but I cannot wait to read the third!

The Darker Arts by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2019 (8 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Darker Arts by Oscar de MurielIt is 1889 and Madame Katerina is about to hold a séance for three of Edinburgh’s most well-known and well-to-do families. They are all related to Grannie Alice, a formidable matriarch who has recently died, taking her secrets with her to the grave. Having tried everything else, these six people feel they have no alternative but to call Grannie Alice from the ‘other side’ so that she can communicate with them. But the next morning, when the room is opened, all six are found dead in their seats, only Katerina is alive. Katerina is the obvious suspect, not least because these are supposedly enlightened days in which gypsies have no place, but her friend Inspector ‘Nine Nails’ McGray does not believe she’s guilty. Somehow, somebody, something killed these people, something that has terrified Madame Katerina and for which she must face trial and punishment. McGray summons his colleague Inspector Ian Frey from England where he is dealing with the death of his uncle. Together they must try and solve an unsolvable puzzle, while journeying deep into the dark, frightening world of Madame Katerina and late Victorian mysticism and superstition.

The Darker Arts is the fifth novel by Oscar de Muriel to feature his irresistible and troublesome detectives, one English, one Scottish, one polite, one a whole lot less polite. McGray and Frey form an unlikely alliance, based in the cellar of Edinburgh’s police station where they tackle inexplicable crimes. McGray’s past is a dark place (hence the ‘nine nails’ and not ‘ten’) and he is determined to understand it. He must know what happened during this séance . Frey, on the other hand, feels far closer to the dead than he’d wish.

This is a wonderful ‘closed room’ tale of murder, with a premise that is immediately appealing, so much so that I began it the day it arrived. I’ve loved all of these books. I love Oscar de Muriel’s writing, which has such a sparkle to it even when he takes us into such dark and dangerous places and his detectives are both remarkable and completely convincing. The case they must solve now is worthy of them and I do believe that The Darker Arts is my favourite of the series so far.

We are presented with a superb cast of characters! These interconnected families are at war and it’s a pleasure getting to know the kin of those who died. It’s an outrageous crime, children have been left orphaned while mothers have lost their children. The impact on their lives is devastating but all the time we are aware that these are no straightforward lives. There is much to learn from them and they fascinate every bit as much as the extraordinary, fabulous McGray and Frey.

The setting of late Victorian Edinburgh is impeccably drawn. It’s also extremely atmospheric, moody and dark, just as you’d hope for from the title, premise and stunning cover. It’s also witty and at times melodramatic. The séance is essentially an act of theatre, Madame Katerina is hard to know, essentially an actor, but the reality is that a hangman’s noose now stalks her and so there is tragedy and pathos to be found as well as melodrama, superstition and ghostly tales.

This series goes from strength to strength. It’s one of the very best Victorian crime series there is – it is, I think, a worthy contender to take the title – and The Darker Arts is a spooky pleasure from start to finish. I hope we’ll be spending much more time with ‘Nine Nails’ and ‘Percy’.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Pan | 2019 (30 May) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Summer Queen by Margaret PembertonIt is August 1879 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria has gathered together all of her family for the annual commemoration of the birthday of her late beloved husband Prince Albert. There’s no denying it’s a chore to most but, while the Queen plots alliances and marriages for her grandchildren and their little cousins, those children run free and play in the grounds of the House. And it is there that three of those children make their own alliance: May of Teck, a cousin from a house tainted by scandal and disgrace; Alicky, the daughter of Alice, Victoria’s second daughter who only recently passed away and is so greatly missed; Willy, Victoria’s first grandchild and arguably her favourite. He is much older than May and Alicky but he knows what to say to Alicky who is grieving for her mother and to May who feels that she is an outsider. Willy, too, feels like an outsider due to the withered arm that makes his own mother ashamed of him. Together they form a bond. They take an oath to become Kindred Spirits – should their alliance be broken, calamity will follow.

These three grow up to become Queen Mary of England, Empress of India; Empress Alix of Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Germany. After many years, these Kindred Spirits will break their oath. War and revolution will tear Europe and Russia apart. Not all of them will survive.

For forty years, The Summer Queen follows the lives and changing fortunes of Queen Victoria’s family as they marry amongst themselves, falling hopelessly in love or, on occasion, into deep enmity. Their marriages and relationships form a web that spreads out across all of Europe and Russia, becoming increasingly entangled as the ‘Royal Mob’, as Victoria called them, multiplies. All of them have pet names, so rarely called by the grand names that they were born with – and, after all, there can be only one Victoria. Their blood relationships are difficult even for them to remember and yet they are impossibly important. Little matters more than royal blood, especially when it flows from Queen Victoria. And yet it carries with it a disease – haemophilia or the bleeding disease – and this takes the life of several and destroys the lives of more.

But while this family carries on its elaborate games, almost believing they’re a normal extended family, they can forget the cost, not just to themselves – heartbreak is the frequent result of forbidden alliances – but to their countries. These are the most powerful people of their time and yet they almost reduce themselves by their use of diminutive names, their parties and their gossip. But by 1914 there isn’t a frantic telegram between cousins that can prevent war or what will happen in Russia.

All of this is brought to life in Margaret Pemberton’s glorious royal saga. And what a wonderful job this author does with what is an extremely complicated tale covering forty years. There are so many people, not of whom use their real names, and it is a challenge at times to remember who is who. There’s a list at the beginning (thank heavens) and there are reminders throughout of relationships, which become ever more complex. But, as the novel progresses, we grow to care very deeply about some of these people, particularly as hindsight warns us what is in store for them. Even Willy is treated with some sympathy. But most of our attention is on May and Alicky. Alicky’s story is relatively well known but there is so much about May that isn’t known and it’s fascinating learning there was far more to her than the photos of a rigidly respectable and formal Queen Mary suggest. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

When all’s said and done, this is a family, albeit a very privileged one. We see their loves and hopes, their jealousies and frustrations, and we feel their losses. This is, particularly in the first half, an often light and frivolous tale as these young people grow up, but there are moments of real sadness and I sobbed my heart out more than once.

I loved the mix of intimate family drama and grand international relations. The two don’t always go together and the conflict in these lives is vividly portrayed. This is a novel that can be enjoyed on several levels and, the more I read, the more I knew I could not put this book down.

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

Raven Books | 2019 (2 May) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Anarchists' Club by Alex ReeveIt was in March 1881 that Dora Hannigan with her two children visited the pharmacy above which Leo Stanhope lodged. Leo hadn’t been able to help her when she asked for credit to buy a medicinal powder. Just a few days later Dora is found dead in the courtyard of the so-called Anarchists’ Club, an establishment where the disaffected and the angry meet to plot vengeance on the establishment. The police find a note with Leo’s address in her purse. Perhaps her visit to the Pharmacy hadn’t been by chance after all. As far as the police are concerned, the connection makes Leo a suspect and that is something that Leo must avoid at all costs. Nothing must be allowed to endanger Leo’s secret. He must keep it safe at every cost. But when a member of the Anarchists’ Club remembers Leo from their youth and threatens to reveal his secret unless he provides an alibi for him, Leo is put in an impossible and dangerous situation.

Then there’s the matter of the two motherless children. Leo’s hunt for them is short. The boy and girl turn up on his doorstep and Leo now learns that it’s not just his own life at risk. But how far will Leo go to protect them as he hunts for their mother’s killer?

The Anarchists’ Club is the second Leo Stanhope novel in a series that began with The House on Half Moon Street. That was such a strong debut from Alex Reeve, clearly a very talented and insightful author, and yet I think that The Anarchists’ Club is even better. There are brief mentions of the previous novel (Leo is still recovering emotionally from past events) but both books stand alone very well indeed.

Leo Stanhope is an incredible main character. I said when I reviewed the earlier novel that he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and nothing has changed. If Leo’s secret (revealed to the new reader early on in the book) were discovered, he would be destroyed. He hides his emotions but they’re there. He expresses his anxiety by painfully pinching himself. He tries to reveal nothing. It isn’t easy at all when, in this novel, his family try to make contact. And also there’s the matter of his relationship with Dora Hannigan’s two children. It’s in these scenes that this novel truly shows its power. Alex Reeve’s portrayal of Leo and of the children is insightful, emotional and also simply gorgeous. They feel like real people, albeit people clearly belonging to that other age of late Victorian England.

I loved the portrayal of London during the 1880s. Leo is a fine tourguide as he takes us around his city, including (especially enjoyably) the Zoo – I really appreciated the map at the beginning of the book. We meet both poor and rich, the vulnerable and the exploiters. The setting of the Anarchists’ Club is intriguing, although the politics remain very much secondary to the mystery.

And it’s such a good mystery. Alex Reeve maintains the tension and pace as Leo becomes consumed by the need to learn the truth and do right by these children. The case raises all sorts of questions about late Victorian society, including the ways in which it sought entertainment. There are some great scenes here. But the book also throws light on such themes as Victorian attitudes towards women and those without a voice. You sense that this is a time ripe for anarchy indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Anarchists’ Club, reading it in just one day. It’s beautifully written and steeped in its time and place. It shines in particular though for its sensitive and moving portrayal of the troubled Leo Stanhope. This novel confirms the series’ place as one of the finest historical crime series about, with one of the most distinctive and memorable historical detectives of them all. I look forward to more!

Other review
The House on Half Moon Street