THE HOURGLASS FACTORY
By Lucy Ribchester
Pegasus Crime, 2015
Paperback (March, 2017)
Kindle edition: $12.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
London, April, 1912. Ebony Diamond, a gymnast, trapeze artist, and suffragette, planned to make a big splash by flying over the prime minister during his speech at the Coliseum. Unfortunately, the big headline the next day was not her daring act of defiance, but the sinking of the Titanic.
Flash forward seven months. Frankie (Francesca) George is tired of writing simpering puff pieces for the London Evening Gazette and pleads for something juicier. She’s assigned to write a portrait piece on Ebony Diamond. Not her dream job, but hey, it’s more fulfilling than her gig helping Twinkle, a flamboyant and eccentric woman who says she is the last of the great courtesans, to write her agony aunt advice column.
She gets a tip that Ebony might be found at Olivier Smythe’s corset shop. Frankie, with her cropped hair and boyish trousers, is decidedly not a potential client, and the haughty, creepy owner tells her to buzz off. Smythe is clearly a consumer of his own products; his waist can’t be more than fifteen inches. Ebony is there, but gives Frankie a rather forceful heave ho.
Scotland Yard has seconded Detective Inspector Frederick Primrose to the Suffragette branch. He knows it’s punishment for some perceived failing, but he’s a good copper and determined to do his best. He learns that the movement is made up of multiple factions. Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst is the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Mrs. Fawcett heads a less militant group. Their methods can be summed up thusly: Mrs. Pankhurst is in favor of glass-smashing with hammers and fighting at the barricades. Mrs. Fawcett’s ladies are courteous tea drinkers with much less smashing. On the flip side, Lady Thorne heads the National Vigilance Association, who scorns the suffragettes and is often seen handing out flyers threatening fire and brim to all those who act in and attend theaters.
Whatever their leanings, many of the suffragettes end up in Holloway Prison. Those who refuse food are brutally force-fed; some die, some are broken, but many survive and return to the streets to fight another day. Ebony has been in twice; those who survive multiple stays wear their suffering like a badge of honor.
Frankie is shocked at first when a woman reported to be Ebony is found murdered on the street. The woman is wearing one of Ebony’s garish outfits. Her shock turns to relief when she sees the lady in question standing nearby. DI Primrose and his department realize that Ebony was the intended victim, and try to locate her to offer protection. Meanwhile, Ebony takes a dive at the end of her performance at the Coliseum and vanishes into thin air. Ebony’s friends, Salome the snake lady and Liam, a ginger-haired street urchin, enlist Frankie to help find her. Twinkle provides moral support, information, champagne and dreadful food. When they do find Ebony, she tells them of a plot by persons unknown to incriminate the suffragette movement and commit an atrocity worse than Guy Fawkes ever dreamed of. The group inadvertently joins forces with DI Primrose in an effort to prevent a great tragedy.
Does all end well? Read this delightful book and find out. The reader will root for plucky Frankie and her oddball cohorts. This in-depth look at the suffragette movement, with its brave women, and a few men, who marched and were beaten, brutalized, and imprisoned to win women’s right to vote, is fascinating and horrific. London, from its highest society to its lowest dens of depravity, comes alive, with its foggy, smelly streets, its match girls and cockle-sellers calling out their wares, its pickpockets plying their trade. And who knew tight-lacing corsets was a thing with people one would never suspect? THE HOURGLASS FACTORY offers a fine mystery, an enlightening history, and a sociological study of turn-of-the century London. Highly recommended.
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