The House On Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve (Bloomsbury – Raven)
Welcome to Victorian London. It’s a place we’re familiar with – the slums, poverty, prostitution, criminality, dirt and fog contrasting with the slightly richer folk. The new middle classes in their comfortable homes with their numerous children and overstuffed sitting rooms. Around it all a sense of double standards and a scant regard for human happiness. As a reader I’ve been here many times before with so many writers, but I never tire of it.
The House on half Moon Street opens in a hospital mortuary, where we are party to some early forensic science and are introduced to our hero, Mr Leo Stanhope. He’s an intelligent young man, conscientious in his work and, an impression I got from the first few pages, a person who lives with a high level of anxiety; there is a very good reason for this, Leo is trans gender. Born as Charlotte Pritchard, Leo lives his life (always has) in the wrong body. This is not the music hall cross dressing of Tipping the Velvet, Leo lives as a man constantly frustrated by his female body; breasts bound, bleeding monthly, always in fear of being found out.
A few do know Leo’s secret, among them his sister Jane, his friend and chess opponent Jacob, and Marie – the prostitute he falls in love with. :Leo lodges in a room above a run down pharmacy run by Alfie Smith (ex Army) and his precocious eleven year old daughter Constance. When we first meet Leo his life is on a fairly even keel.
However, things begin to go wrong very quickly, starting with the cadaver (Jack Flowers) we meet in the opening paragraphs and rippling out through the whole of Leo’s carefully constructed life – our hero falls into a detective story almost by accident.
When first Flowers and then Marie are killed, Leo is arrested as a suspect. Interviewed by Detective Sergeant Ripley he is unimpressed – the police have clearly not understood what’s happening – so once released (mysteriously) from a hideous night in the police cells Leo decides to investigate for himself.
I enjoyed this novel greatly – I didn’t really know what to expect, certainly not a detective – almost a private eye – story. There are some awful incidents (murder and rape among them) but these were disturbing times which, we know from history, little valued individual wellbeing, especially of the poor. This is not a po-faced social history though, and the story bowls along at quite a pace.
Leo is hugely engaging protagonist, intelligent and yet vulnerable, very brave even when the situation appears hopeless. He gathers a kind of ‘Scooby gang’ around him to help solve the crime – there are rooftop escapes, sinister stalkings through London fog, druggings and maimings and close shaves a plenty. Like all the best mystery stories the story twists and turns brilliantly, with all the pleasure of trying to puzzle it out. I thought I’d solved it twice (I hadn’t!). Brilliantly, for this reader at least, it has a proper resolution.
I understand this is the first in a series of Leo Stanhope books – his world is already real to me – I can imagine walking the streets, can feel the atmosphere. There so many characters who I wanted to meet again and get know a little better. Alex Reeve has built a marvellous Victorian world for Leo’s ‘family’ to inhabit and I’m looking forward to their further adventures very much indeed.
The House on Half Moon Street was published by Bloomsbury Raven in December 2018. Thanks to them for providing a review copy via NetGalley.