The new historical mystery The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh blends murderous deeds with a healthy dose of romance between an unlikely pair of investigators. Set in the Victorian era, Walsh’s novel effectively evokes the sights, smells and sounds of 1870s London, while believably capturing the social class distinctions of the day.
Minnie Ward is a former music hall performer who has retired from the stage and now works alongside Variety Palace Music Hall’s owner/manager. Minnie is meant to write the songs and skits but in actual fact she oversees the mix of tumblers, tightrope walkers, singers, not-so-funny comedians, Shakespearean actors, plate-spinners, et cetera, including a troublesome monkey.
Something is always going on – drama among the cast members, audience eruptions, the monkey in the rafters peeing on the people below. The theatre itself might appear elegantly appointed, but the lighting contractor saved money on the backstage warren of hallways and dressing rooms and workshops where Minnie and the other cast members spend most of their time. Author Walsh has created a little world here that is intriguing, full of story possibilities, and rife with unexpected developments. The contrast between the characters’ sometimes grubby off-stage realities and their pseudo-glamorous on-stage personas is striking, and the higher up the entertainment ladder a performer rises, the greater that contrast is.
Albert Easterbrook is a public school-educated former policeman who’s left the force to start his own detective business. He learned to speak in an upper-class style so that he would fit in better with his schoolmates, but his sympathies are elsewhere. His avocation is boxing, and he has a soft heart when given the chance to help someone suffering.
Albert still has friends (enemies too, probably) within the police force. His friend John Price occasionally gives him inside information – always handy for a private detective – but Price spends most of his time unsuccessfully tracking a serial killer called the Hairpin Killer, who’s been targeting the city’s women for a decade. Minnie and her female theatre colleagues can never completely forget that a vicious murderer is out there, somewhere. As a result, footsteps in the dark and chance encounters can be more than a little anxiety-provoking.
On Albert’s doorstep arrive Minnie and Ida Watkins, mother of the Variety’s acrobat, Rose, who was found hanged below the pest-ridden Adelphi Arches. Suicide, the police say, that being the easiest way to dismiss the death of a young woman they don’t care about. Minnie and her mother disagree with this conclusion and want Albert to find out what really happened. Observing that Ida surely cannot afford his usual fee, he charges her almost nothing, and Minnie volunteers to help. In a long-running motif in the story, he argues that her involvement is too dangerous – a point proved when related deaths occur – and she argues that, with her working-class speech, she can pry information out of people who would never reveal anything to him. Both are correct.
You also have a chance to see a bit of Victorian high life, as the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London seems to be involved in the murders Albert is investigating. At the time of their deaths, Rose and another victim had a bauble called a Stanhope marked with the club’s insignia. Rose’s Stanhope has a married man’s photograph inside and when he’s found dead among his possessions is one containing Rose’s photo. It’s another nice metaphor for the seen but not seen.
If I had to sum up this story in a single word, it might be ‘romp,’ because it moves fast, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and, even if you’re pretty sure where Minnie and Albert’s relationship will end up, getting there is half the fun. Yet, there are some grim and grisly discoveries in between.
The Tumbling Girl is described as ‘a Variety Palace Mystery,’ and from that and the ending, which leaves a few bad guys unfound and other loose ends, there is surely a sequel planned. In fact, a short chapter at the end raises questions presumably to be addressed in a subsequent book. That doesn’t take away from the pleasure in the conclusion of this story.
Also try Death and the Conjuror by Tom Mead or The Martian Girl by Andrew Martin.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars