Reviewed by Victoria
I do love a good cozy crime mystery and so I had high hopes for the new series by Kate Saunders, concerning her Victorian lady detective, Laetitia Rodd. Kate Saunders is an excellent writer, if you haven’t come across her before, and this first outing in crime fiction certainly proves she can master any narrative she turns her hand to. In terms of atmosphere, style, plotting and characterisation, this book is a winner. It gave me that lovely experience of rushing through all other jobs so I could sit down with it for another hour of reading, and my only real regret is that now I’ll have to curb my impatience for a while before the next in the series comes out. Move aside, Maisie Dobbs, Daisy Dalrymple, Kate Shackleton and Dandy Gilver. There’s a new kid on the block.
Or at least, in the modest Hampstead terrace. Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the widow of an Archdeacon, now living in impoverished circumstances with Mrs Bentley, her landlady, general servant and dear companion. In an era of upstairs and downstairs, theirs is a touching relationship that has no regard for the niceties of class. Laetitia Rodd has an unusual way of making ends meet. She is a lady detective of the utmost discretion, a woman from amongst the ranks of the most respectable clergy and so able to travel to all locations, and an invisible older woman, easy to talk to and never perceived as a threat. Her brother, Frederick, is a criminal barrister, and he is Letty’s most regular source of work. In October of 1850, when this story begins, Fred’s carriage arrives at her door to take her to a very private meeting with the lawyer of a very wealthy client.
Sir James Calderstone is an important industrialist, rich from mining, and a man with a finger in every political pie. He lives on the family estate, Wishtide in Lincolnshire with his delicate wife, two young daughters and a son, Charles, who is the cause of his concern. Hot-headed, passionate Charles has fallen for a deeply unsuitable woman, whom he swears he will marry. Helen Orme is a young, beautiful widow, fluent in Italian, gifted in music, sweet in temperament. She lives with her sister-in-law Winifred in a cottage near the estate, all of which gives her the veneer of respectability. But she is a woman without a history, and the few stories she has given Charles about her past seem implausible. James Calderstone is determined to oppose the marriage, fearing a gold-digger or worse, and enlists Letty’s help to uncover the truth about Helen’s background.
So in the guise of a governess, Letty travels to the depths of the freezing Lincolnshire countryside and finds much that concerns her there. Not only is she aware that Helen is a contradiction in terms – a good woman who appears to be lying to her – she is also worried about the state of Sir James’ marriage and the unhealthy, febrile condition of his wife. She seems almost a prisoner in her own home, attended only by a surly French maid whom no one likes. Before many pages are passed, there’ll be blackmail, murder and all kinds of old scandal threatening the family, and young Charles will be thrown in jail for crimes Letty is convinced he did not commit.
There is just so much to appreciate in this novel. The rich texture of the Victorian settings: grand houses, dingy London taverns, thriving local markets, gloomy prisons, vicars and vicarages of all sorts and sizes. Letty is such a lovable character, devout and determined and yet perfectly human, too. The investigations she undertakes are entirely plausible – she never leaves environments where a middle-class respectable woman could be readily seen – and her powers of deduction are down to a good, solid mix of common sense and emotional intelligence. She’s thrown in conflict with a traditional policeman type, the darstardly-named Inspector Blackbeard, though I suspect a frisson of romance by halfway through this series. And the plot is excellent. I think I’ve read a lot of crime fiction, and have come across all the plots there are, one way or another. But this one was really good in the way it combined familiar elements in new variations. The original set-up is entirely dismantled within the first fifty or so pages, and a whole new set of problems pose themselves. I wondered several times where Kate Saunders might be taking me, and every time I was well rewarded. It’s a very satisfying story that comes out just as it should.
For fans of Victorian fiction, Kate Saunders mentions in an afterword that the plot of this novel comes from her fascination with Dickens’ David Copperfield, and that writing the book was a way for her to settle a small subplot that had long intrigued her. You don’t need to be familiar with David Copperfield to enjoy this book (I have read very little Dickens), but it’s a fun fan fact if you are.
Altogether, I loved this one. Hurry up, Kate, and write the next one, please.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Kate Saunders, The Secrets of Wishtide (Bloomsbury, 2016). 978-1408866863, 352 pp., hardback.
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