The other day someone asked me what the last book was that I had managed to read in one sitting. I couldn’t really think of anything at the time but I can now. The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve kept me up longer than expected and I am sure it will do the same to you.
Set in Victorian London, this story is about Leo Stanhope, a man who left home at age 15 as a girl named Charlotte and who’s now working as a coroner’s assistant while trying to conceal his true identity, falling in love with Maria the prostitute and then attempting to solve her murder. Yes, its quite a mouthful but oh so delicately done.
While this novel is at its core a simple, straightforward thriller, it is heavily layered with issues of gender identity, misogyny and the dark underbelly of 1880’s London. As a historical thriller with a transgender narrator, The House on Half Moon Street is a unique take on the genre indicating that not all contemporary crime novels have “been done” which automatically sets it apart as a remarkable debut.
As a protagonist, Leo is flawed, angry and worthy of admiration all at the same time. His ardent love for Maria, is both heart warming and heart wrenching and as a reader you would be rooting for him to catch his beloved’s killer while simultaneously fearing for his life in case he was found out to be who he truly was, a woman in a man’s body.
In Victorian England some women did step out of their corsets to indulge in a little crossdressing to simply get away from the entrapment that was their gender. It was an act that was liberating and offered freedom to do as they pleased simply because they dressed as men which of course highlights the great disparity in gender roles during that time.
‘Every time I called myself Leo and put on trousers I was breaking the law. My crime wasn’t something I’d done out of greed or ill-temper, it was something I was…‘
Alex Reeve, The House on Half Moon Street, page 63
It wasn’t quite so simple for Leo because even though he dressed as a man and worked in a stereotypically male profession, he still menstruated every month, bandaged his chest every day to flatten it and cursed the fact that he was denied providence and mercilessly placed in a woman’s body. For Leo, dressing as a man was no freedom as the problem lay deep within him and was not solvable by a simple change of clothes. Also, given the attitude of society back then, if caught he would earn himself a one way ticket to an asylum. It is this very crisis of his gender identity that makes him a deeply interesting and complicated amateur detective who’s turmoil is handled by Reeve with great compassion and elegance.
It is also impressive how the novel moves at such a brisk pace despite it being a series of internal monologues which would usually make for a slightly sluggish read. It is gentle with its prose, atmospheric with its vivid descriptions of a dark and gritty Victorian London and brave in its attempt at using murder as a means of discussing controversial topics within the setting of a very tight lipped era.
This is the first in a series of Leo Stanhope mysteries and a compelling and unusual read that I suggest you get your mitts on asap.
The House on Half Moon Street is published by Raven Books and is out on May 3, 2018.