Written by Karen Charlton — Back in 2012 we reviewed The Missing Heiress (later renamed The Heiress of Linn Hagh). Regardless of the title, readers fell in love with the Regency charms of Detective Lavender and his sidekick Constable Woods and it’s been a long wait for the follow-up novel, though there have been Lavender short stories to whet the appetite in the interim.
There’s drama from page one in The Sans Pareil Mystery, which is appropriate for a novel that has the name of a theatre in its title. It’s February, 1810 when a distressed young boy runs into Bow Street Magistrates Court shouting, “Murder!”
Lavender and Woods waste no time in following him to the scene of the supposed crime. A ramshackle old building is about to be demolished, but neighbours insist that a young woman and her child are inside although a thorough search of the premises reveals nothing and nobody.
The mystery of the baby is soon deftly solved by clever Detective Lavender in an amusing scene. But the tone changes as demolition begins and the body of a young woman is uncovered in the rubble. It’s an area used by prostitutes – ‘Covent Garden nuns’ as they are so colourfully called in local parlance – but this victim shows no signs of pox or disease. She is also fairly well dressed, although her shoes are a couple of sizes too big. Hmm, this is a Mystery with a capital M – the sort that Lavender and Woods just love to get their teeth into.
It doesn’t take them long to discover the identity of the victim. She is April Divine, an actress at the Sans Pareil Theatre (which is now the Adelphi). But what was she doing in such an insalubrious place, and why did someone kill her? And don’t forget those shoes – because they have an important part to play in this intricately plotted tale.
The great thing about historical crime fiction is that, when done well, it transports you back to different world. Charlton handles the historical detail with a finely trimmed quill, never burdening us with too much extraneous detail, yet we’re pulled along slap-bang into the smelly, dirty, crime-ridden streets of early 19th century London. With just a few well-chosen words she can conjure up a pin-sharp scene, whether it be in the rough and ready party of the capital or behind the scenes in the Sans Pareil Theatre.
That’s another great thing about this author’s work, she intertwines real life and fictional characters and adeptly uses period settings and historical detail to such great effect that the lines between reality and imagination are decidedly fuzzy. I just wish history lessons at school had been so entertaining! There’s murder, kidnap, spying, trickery and tomfoolery aplenty before things come to a satisfying conclusion.
Lavender fans have waited almost three years for this new novel, and they will be very happy with how his life progresses here. He is more well-rounded and less staid than on first acquaintance but his powers of deduction would still give Holmes and Poirot a run for their money. A book to delight fans of historical crime fiction, and we ask the author, “Please don’t leave it so long until we meet Lavender and company again.”
The Sans Pareil Mystery is out 6 October. For more historical crime fiction click here.
Thomas & Mercer
CFL Rating: 5 Stars