Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
The Tumbling Girl, first in a new historical mystery series, is set in Victorian London with an interesting cast of women and men striving to move upward from their lower class roots. Prejudices against women, against people whose accents betray lower class roots, and against various professions deemed not respectable beset them.
Minnie Ward does contract work for the Variety Palace Music Hall, writing scripts for acts as varied as sentimental musical numbers and low comedy featuring dogs and monkeys. Proud to be working for herself, not as a music hall employee, she occasionally reminds people with some asperity that Edward Tansford, the owner, is not her boss. When one of her dear friends, the music hall’s acrobatic performer Rose Watkins disappears and is soon found dead in circumstances that the police dismiss as a suicide, despite many indications of murder, Minnie consults a private investigator. Albert Easterbrook, not the “toff” he appears, takes the case for a minimal fee. These characters and more are all vividly drawn personalities, but Minnie in particular is a wonderfully engaging heroine, caring, determined, courageous and independent.
Adding an underpinning of ever-present fear to the story is the Hairpin Killer, a serial killer who knifes young women in the thighs and leaves his calling card—seven hairpins stabbed into each of their hearts. Still on the loose despite police efforts, this unknown killer is only one of the sinister characters in the novel, some of them socially respectable, wealthy men with secret, horrifying vices.
The Tumbling Girl is an unusually assured and captivating debut mystery novel. Readers can look forward to more in this series revolving around the Variety Palace Music Hall, a juicy setting that could easily lead to any number of similarly captivating tales. (2023; 272 pages)More about The Tumbling Girl at Powell's Books or The Book Depository