There’s a serial killer on the loose in Victorian London and the best woman is on the case – Heloise Chancey, courtesan turned private detective. She’s called upon by the kindly Sir Thomas Avery and his client, the large-eared and disagreeable Mr Priestly, to do a ‘spot of work’ – find missing seventeen year old Eleanor Carter, who has been thrown out of home for finding herself in an ‘unhappy condition’. They’re worried she may have fallen victim to a Jack-the-Ripper style killer who has already butchered four pregnant women, removing their sexual organs in what appears to be a botched hysterectomy, leaving the police perplexed.
Heloise has a history as a stage actress so Sir Thomas and Mr Priestly direct her to pose as a prostitute in the slums of Waterloo. But Heloise, who does investigation work for pleasure and not money, decides ‘I don’t need to be flat on my back or flashing my breasts to find this Eleanor girl’. She leaves behind her trusted maid, Amah Li Leen, and ventures to Waterloo where she intends to do things her own way.
M.J. Tjia is the pen name for Brisbane based author Mirandi Riwoe, who also writes literary fiction and whose novella The Fish Girl won the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. She Be Damned, the first in the Heloise Chancey series, was long listed for the 2015 CWA Debut Dagger and has been picked up by Legend Press in London. Tjia depicts a gritty Victorian London for a gruesome murder mystery, evoking the era with a few well-chosen words from the dialect, vivid descriptions of the squalid living conditions, and shrewd observations of sexist and racist attitudes of the time. Women with unwanted pregnancies find themselves in a desperate situation with no support, no health care and limited options available to them, and the treatment of Amah Li Leen who, as a Eurasian woman, is viewed as dangerous and untrustworthy and forced to disguise herself in public or risk being openly abused in the streets.
Heloise is a dauntless main character who is well aware of the realities of life, having worked in the back alleys and brothels of Liverpool before earning her place as an esteemed courtesan living in Mayfair. With an ability to move between different social circles, she throws herself into the investigation using her instinct, intelligence and experience to question a range of unsavoury characters. There’s sneaky Madame Silvestre at the brothel where Heloise used to work, the dodgy back door doctor conducting ‘scrapings’, and Bill Chapman, an ambitious police sergeant investigating the murders in his own time in the hopes of getting a promotion.
She Be Damned moves along at a nimble pace starting with a violent prologue where the murderer claims his latest victim, and with a shocking turn of events halfway through the story. Li Leen’s backstory is revealed in mysterious interludes throughout the book, making her a sympathetic character and allowing the reader a different point of view of Heloise, leading to a significant reveal at the end.
These two brave, unapologetic leading ladies makes She Be Damned a historical crime fiction novel that is perfect for contemporary readers and a joy to read. There’s plenty of material for this to become a rich and engaging series of mystery novels and I eagerly await the next installment.
She Be Damned by M. J. Tjia is published in Australia by Pantera Press.
I lie as flat as I can but my crinoline hoops pop up above my lower body like a shopfront awning.