THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS
The Gower St. Detective (Book 1)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
When March Middleton’s father dies in a climbing accident in Switzerland, leaving her an orphan, she doesn’t have many options. In Victorian England, an unmarried woman from the upper class must have a male protector. Her godfather, Sidney Grice, offers to take her in, and she reluctantly leaves the ancestral country home to live with him in London. She’s never met the man, but knows he is a private detective of some renown. (Later he would inform her haughtily that he is a “personal” detective.) His exploits and derring-do are the stuff of legend, and the subject of many a penny dreadful. She is intrigued by his abilities, and intends to work alongside him as his assistant.
She meets a like-minded woman on the train, who shares her fondness for cigarettes and gin. Harriett Fitzpatrick tells her more about the legendary Mr. Grice, and fills her in about the perils of living in the big city. By the time they reach London, they’ve become friends. It is a friendship that will benefit them both in the months to come.
When March boarded the train in the country, she left a place of beauty and peace. When she steps onto the platform in London, she is immersed in the smelly, noisy, chaotic world of London. The air is choked with thick yellow coal smoke, and grubby children beg for pennies. The contrast is almost overwhelming, but she can’t turn back now.
Grice’s maid, Molly, meets her at the station and leads her to the gracious Bloomsburg home where March will begin her new life. Her first impression of her godfather: he’s smaller than his reputation would suggest, he has a glass eye that pops out frequently, and he is insufferably rude. He tells her straight off that she is not at all beautiful like her late mother. He is grudgingly willing to provide room and board, but has no intention of letting her assist him in his detective work. The man is rude, arrogant, and inflexible, with not one ounce of kindness or empathy in his body. March is no frail flower: she had traveled the world with her father, an Army doctor, serving as his nurse under difficult conditions in India and Afghanistan. She plans to continue to live an exciting live. A plain girl of twenty-one, she knows she has little chance of marriage — a sentiment her godfather holds as well.
She gets her chance to challenge him within hours of her arrival. Mrs. Grace Dillinger, a widow of limited means, pleads with Grice to help her son-in-law, who has been arrested for the murder of her daughter. Mrs. Dillinger believes in his innocence, and wants Grice to save him from the noose. He is brusque to the point of rudeness. He tells the bereaved lady that he does not run a charity: no money, no investigation. March, however, is taken by the woman’s plight. She offers to pay for his services from her own inheritance, with one catch — he must let her accompany him and help in the investigation. He agrees to her terms, and spares no expense to solve the case.
To Grice’s surprise, his ward turns out to be clever, resourceful, and tough. He’d never tell her so; he does not believe in praising others for a job well done. They have a difference of opinion on the guilt or innocence of William Ashby, and the case ends badly. Grice, a controversial character at the best of times, is ridiculed and heckled by the public. He is seldom wrong, and this debacle deals a massive blow to his pride. March is angry with him as well, and things are very tense in the Grice/Middleton household. Will he regain her respect and his reputation? All will be revealed in their next adventure, THE CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF FOSKETT.
This is the first in a new series, and it is a delight. The English countryside and the mean streets of Victorian London come alive in vivid detail. The characters are so realistic they almost walk off the page. Sidney Grice is a bigger-than-life, even though small in stature, version of Sherlock Holmes on steroids. He is not at all one-dimensional: behind his gruff manner lurks a sentimental, tender heart. Sometimes it lurks pretty far down, but it is there nonetheless. He is a man ahead of his time in forensic science, and is also an inventor. Some of his inventions, like the thermos that allows him to have his tea constantly at hand, is one of the better ones; others, not so much. March Middleton is resourceful, determined, feisty in the best sense of the word, and kind, a feminine Watson who is able to handle Grice, even though he never realizes she’s doing it. Another thing she has in common with Watson: she gave medical aid to the British troops in Afghanistan. The similarities are intentional, and very well done. Molly is a blundering, happy mess, her speech unintentionally hilarious. All the other characters are fully realized as well.
This book, and the series, are highly recommended.
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