Kate Saunders is perhaps best known for her recent children’s novel Five Children on the Western Front, a tribute to the stories of E. Nesbit which won the 2014 Costa Children’s Book Award. I heard Kate speak about 18 months ago while I was at the Faber Academy and she mentioned that she was writing a series for Bloomsbury about a Victorian lady detective. Finally the first instalment of the Laetitia Rodd mysteries is available.
Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent.
A widow in her 50s, Letty Rodd is a gung-ho Miss Marple. She enters Sir James’ home, the grand family seat of Wishtide, in the disguise of a governess to his two daughters. In this role, neither quite upstairs nor quite downstairs, she manages to quickly gain the trust of most of the people she encounters. The ‘unsuitable’ woman in question is a young widow, Mrs Helen Orme, who lives quietly in the nearby village with her sister-in-law. At first the problem seems to be a simple blackmail plot: some unknown person has written to Sir James claiming to be Mrs Orme’s first husband. From her first meeting with Helen, Letty is convinced that she is keeping a secret but is also sure that she means no harm. It takes only a little effort to discover the truth, at least as far as Helen Orme herself knows it. But then there is a brutal murder…
What seems at first like a simple mystery evolves into something far more entangled and satisfying. We travel with Letty from great houses in the Lincolnshire countryside to a dodgy inn in Wapping, into Newgate Prison in search of a murderous blackmailer. Although not a challenging puzzle, nor using the most original of plot devices, this was an enjoyable read and most definitely a page turner. Victorian London was well-drawn, equally as well as the country scenes in town and at Wishtide. Like the very best Victorian mystery novels there are a couple of lucky coincidences which help Letty along the way, and I am sure this was the author doffing her cap to the writers of the period.
This is a novel whose plot relies on the social norms of the day. It focuses on the idea of reputation and how vital that was to women of a certain class at that time. While Sir James is appalled at the idea of his son marrying a woman who has been married before, he is happy to keep his mistress in London while his wife remains at Wishtide. In fact, this is such an unremarkable situation that he even lives with his mistress and has Letty call at her house for a meeting! There are other examples that I cannot disclose without spoilers, but Letty does reflect on the unfairness of the various situations on more than one occasion.
I found this book hugely enjoyable, a light read that kept my attention and was such a page-turner that I read it in one day. I’m already looking forward to the follow-up.