They say that history has been largely told by men, but over the past few years crime writers have been throwing light on a hidden past, where women have the starring roles on both sides of the law. The Housekeepers by Alex Hay is an excellent case in point. Get ready to be taken away to Edwardian London for a unique heist story in the author’s debut novel.
Despite years of service, Mrs King is unceremoniously dismissed from her role as housekeeper at the de Vries residence on Park Lane in Mayfair. Mr Shepherd, the Butler, has advised the lady of the house, Miss de Vries, that Mrs King was seen entering the male quarters the night before. An example must be made; no whiff of impropriety can stain the reputation of the de Vries family.
Mrs King packs up and leaves but for her this is not the end of the matter – she will be back with revenge in mind. Since the recent death of her autocratic father, Miss de Vries has begun to enjoy the power to make her own decisions. She has been planning a costumed ball for 26 June 1905. It will be a grand affair. Mrs King was influential in putting plans together and when she is sacked there is less than a month to go.
Mrs King intends to rob the house, take everything that very night and strip it bare of its opulence and wealth. For that she needs a crew. She already has an insider, but it will take several more willing hands and she enlists Mrs Bone for the financial means to realise her audacious plan. Mrs Bone leads her own band of outlaws.
Naturally, things do not go exactly to plan, there are troubles along the way and the night itself is beset with difficulties. Can the women pull it off and escape detection? On that level, The Housekeepers is a brilliant romp, a page-turning adventure with a zippy pace. It’s the perfect beach read, and as such it is clear newcomer Hay delivers what readers crave – excitement and thrills.
The story has a great sense of time and place and that gives it a bit more depth than the set up suggests. It’s about the role of women in the post-Victorian age, this is the coming era of the suffragettes and the novel explores misogyny, patriarchy and class. In this unequal world, can a gang of women take back the power?
A key component of both the fun and the more serious themes is the cast of characters. Mission-driven Mrs King and her hard edged partner Mrs Bone know the value of a coin and how to play every angle. There’s also Mrs Bone’s girls, the two Janes, actress Hephzibah and household servant, Alice. The relationships between the women, their loyalties and passions, lead to strife but nonetheless endear us to their cause. The challenge of female autonomy in an age assumed to be buttoned down and male dominated is thrilling. Hay has created an engaging ensemble.
Then we have the mark, Miss de Vries. She is rich but bound by societal rules and there are suitably dastardly villains to overcome. Underlying the plot is a thread that we won’t spoil for you, but suffice to say the idiom ‘no man ever got rich but there are some who suffered for him to do so’ rings true here. The ordered high society of the Edwardian era, hide bound in Victorian values, is built on hypocrisy and corruption. This look through the window of a grand Mayfair house reveals many dark secrets. Hay is fascinated by what lies beneath the facade and easily involves us in the quest to find out.
The novel opens with just under a month to the robbery and a ticking clock, the countdown is another enjoyable feature that readers can relate to. The Housekeepers is a proper fun fest, a novel that will leave you with a warm feeling inside.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars