Thursday 10 August 2017

Book review : She Be Damned - M.J. Tjia

The blurb on the back of the book instantly sets the scene : "London, 1863: prostitutes in the Waterloo area are turning up dead, their sexual organs mutilated and removed. When another girl goes missing, fears grow that the killer may have claimed their latest victim." The basic plotline doesn't sound overly original so I was expecting another retelling of a Jack The Ripper type story. What sets it apart from all the others, however, is the fascinating, feisty and multi-faceted leading lady, Heloise Chancey.

Heloise is introduced as a wealthy woman living by her own means in a lavishly furnished house. She has exotic tastes in home furnishings - even her maid, Amah Li Leen, is Chinese, which is unusual in these xenophobic times - but an air of mystery surrounds her and we don't really know where she got her money from or who she really is. She has had a varied and flamboyant life - she is a libertine, a courtesan, a former prostitute and star of the stage - but now, she has added another string to her bow and is, surprisingly, a professional detective, used by private patrons to go undercover when the police are at a loss. In this particular case, Heloise's chequered past, personal experience and numerous contacts in the local brothels will come in handy.

It's a very atmospheric read - I could instantly imagine myself in the foul-smelling, bustling streets of the capital, with horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping past and street urchins sifting through the filthy rubbish. The crimes inflicted on the prostitutes are savage and horrific, but the descriptions of the crime scenes are understated and don't depend on copious amounts of gore and graphic detail for their impact.

Heloise is an intriguing and highly original character, quite capable of carrying the story and, indeed, series, as this is labelled as the first Heloise Chancey Mystery. She reminds me of a cross between Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes with a touch of Moulin Rouge thrown in for good measure ! She is a woman of her time - she wears the corsets and crinolines of her peers - but she refuses to be confined by the sexist attitudes and limitations imposed on the fairer sex. The final chapters of the book reveal that she is even more unconventional and beguiling than first imagined, so I'll be looking forward to learning more about her in her further adventures.

M.J. Tjia has created a compelling and unique heroine, who has a foot in both the opulence of her Mayfair home and the squalor of Waterloo. This allows a great deal of subtle social commentary, revealing the lifestyles of the genteel ladies tittering behind their fans at the theatre but also the prostitutes and dishonoured unmarried mothers. I learnt a lot about this period of history - I was unaware, for example, that there was such prevalent racism, as well as sexism, at the time - and this historical fiction slant puts a modern spin on a classic style of mystery writing. M.J. Tjia is a Eurasian author, interested in portraying racially hybridised characters, so I can see this being developed in future titles.

It's a delightful read, as enlightening as it is entertaining, and I'll definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.

star rating : 4.5/5

ISBN (Paperback): 9781785079313
ISBN (Ebook): 9781785079306
Price: £8.99 (Paperback) £5.99 (Ebook)
Extent: 288 pages
Format: 198x129mm
Rights Held: World

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.


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