The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

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The Innocents by Bridget Walsh front cover

This is the second novel in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in Victorian London, in a particular world we less often read about – a music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred 14 years before the main story. In a different theatre, the Trafalgar, which has subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children at Christmastime had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium were bolted. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and 183 suffocated. The fact that no one was ever held to account for the tragedy has lodged like a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a writer for the Variety Palace. She has been put in charge while her boss, Edward ‘Tansie’ Tansford recovers from the tragic events recounted in The Tumbling Girl. While there are frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book in order to follow the story in this one. Minnie was instrumental in solving that case, teaming up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theatre world has been the target of a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. This is a chance to reach out to Albert, and, reluctantly, she visits him at Mrs. Byrne’s lodgings.

After the two of them discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realisation gradually takes hold that all of the dead were – directly or indirectly – connected in some way to the tragedy at the Trafalgar. What’s more, all the deaths involved some type of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the initial tragic events, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again and full of hare-brained schemes to put it on a firmer financial footing. Before long, he’s distracted – this time by the disappearance of his monkey, named Monkey. Tansie believes Monkey has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. The effort to rescue him gives you a peek at not just the talented denizens and patrons of the theatre world, but also a decidedly seamy side of London life. The vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Minnie and Albert diligently pursue whatever leads they have, and an attempt on the life of one of the Palace’s own performers convinces them the killer is getting much too close. Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable – even Monkey, who has a bad habit of hiding in the rafters and urinating on people below.

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. Tansie’s co-owner, confined to a grim mental hospital, threatens to close the theatre down unless Minnie visits him frequently. She makes that mistake once and finds him altogether too creepy to justify a return trip. The theatre’s new accountant is a very attractive woman, and she and Albert seem to Minnie to be getting on a little too well. Sharing secrets, trying to hide their smiles. And, there may be a budding romance at the Palace involving Frances, the young costume-maker, and a handsome stagehand. Eventually, Minnie learns that even Frances has a link to the tragedy at the Trafalgar. Her leg was injured in the crush of children, leaving her with a permanent limp.

Plenty of plot, engaging characters, colourful setting, fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a good historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

Also see Tom Mead’s The Murder Wheel.

Gallic Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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