Written by Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond — It’s January 1608. London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the extent of the grain shortage is as yet being kept secret. Suspicions run high. When a well respected woman of the Aldgate neighbourhood – Mrs K – dies under mysterious circumstances there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.
In this historical mystery, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of its most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. Her story, currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.
Mrs K’s body is discovered early one morning by her colleague in the Maiden’s Guild, Mrs Cox. She was killed by a blow to the head. Mrs Cox takes it upon herself to remove Mrs K’s valuables, in accordance with the dead woman’s wishes. Heaven forbid she be observed leaving the premises or she’ll be the one tried for murder.
She confers with the two other remaining leaders of the Guild, Nurse and the laundress Bitty, regarding what they should do to protect Mrs K’s interests and figure out who killed her. Over the course of the next day Mrs K is not seen out and about so her landlord, Mr Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates. Instead of finding a body he discovers the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era.
Mrs K had originally owned the alehouse, but sold the property to a friend when she retired under the understanding that she would have a lodging rent-free for life. When her friend married Mr Sutton, he became the property owner and heartily resents having to provide her a home. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.
The local alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming mayor. A number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing, but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had reason to murder Mrs K, because of her encyclopedic knowledge of the area, including certain permanent restrictions on development that others have forgotten.
Moore’s narrative is as full of colourful characters as a Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs Gosson, so close in sound to gossip, which well describes her stock-in-trade. The book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond, has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast. She conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart.
Rumours suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman matching the description is found. She’s tried, found guilty and is due to hang, but the women of the Maiden’s Guild know she’s not Mrs Abbott and that she’s not guilty. Despite the obstacles to gaining the attention of the court, and the desire of Blincoe that someone be hanged, guilty or not, they persist in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of income or influence.
Mrs Cox’s breeding is a bit above that of her current neighbours and for the most part displays uncommon sense. Yet she is not perfect. She doesn’t understand Bitty, so cannot please her, while Bitty understands Mrs Cox but doesn’t care to please her. The irrepressible Bitty is a lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice needleworkers, and people with secrets will stay in your mind long after the story ends.
If you enjoy historical crime novels, see our list of some of the best, era by era, compiled by crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars