Alys Clare is known for her medieval mysteries, particularly the Hawkenlye and Aelf Fen books. I hear they’re really good, but these were the times when life was “nasty, brutish and short”, so I’ve always steered clear, maybe unnecessarily. But I was pleased when Clare decided to jump forward a few centuries to set her new series in 1880s London.
Lily Raynor is a private investigator who is beginning to make a name for herself with her ability to get to the bottom of things with tact and discretion. Working from her late grandparents’ apothecary shop, she finds herself too busy to manage all the filing, note-taking and plant watering at her World’s End Bureau, so decides to hire an assistant. Of the six candidates on her shortlist, only the last is in any way promising. Although Felix Wilbraham isn’t quite what she had in mind.
Felix is a from a well to-do background, but falling out with his dear papa, has been living a hand to mouth existence of late. He’s down to his last pennies when he eagerly accepts Lily’s offer of employment. And so marks the beginning of a new crime-fighting partnership. Felix has excellent penmanship and the enthusiasm of a lively puppy. He hasn’t a clue about pot plants but after his month’s trial, becomes indispensable to Lily, not just for filing and making tea, but in the field of inquiry.
The story cracks on with two cases for the bureau. Lily attends a private member’s club to interview Lord Berwick who is worried about his son – a weak young who has become besotted with an ageing actress. But she’s not Lady Berwick material so Lily is asked to investigate her background and to see if she’s merely toying with young Julian and if there’s anything about her that might cool Julian’s ardour. Meanwhile Felix interviews a Mr Stibbins who is worried about his wife. They are a happy couple, and Mrs Stibbins helps out the bereaved through her work as a medium. But lately she has a feeling that her life is in danger.
So two quite different cases. But as the smart reader will remember from the prologue, Mrs Stibbins isn’t the only woman in danger – a young girl has been murdered in the vicinity and soon the bureau is caught up with the matter of women, mainly prostitutes, who have gone missing. This really cranks up the danger, especially when Lily plays a duplicitous game. The story builds to a nail-biting ending to reveal a criminal with a particularly original bent.
This is an intelligently plotted and engaging story with two likeable main characters. Lily has a background in midwifery, but a shadow clouding her past she thinks of as The Incident, has seen her eager to change profession. She has an interesting association with a canal boatman who has a gypsy-like alternative life-style and an other-worldly wisdom.
Felix’s experiences as an older woman’s plaything, along with his knowledge of the seamier theatre world, help him with the Berwick case. So both he and Lily have secrets that they are as yet unwilling to share with each other. This sets the scene for some interesting character development and dynamics that will no doubt affect their working relationship.
This is a very entertaining and relaxing period mystery that never gets too dark, in spite of the grimmer side of Victorian London emerging from time to time. You get a strong sense of the rigidity of a class system that keeps people in their place and that women like Lily are pushing boundaries by determining their own futures. She’s a complex character and I look forward to getting to know her better through the series. (Book number two is The Outcast Girls.) The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits scores a four out of five from me.