The third Leo Stanhope Case.
Reeves’ 2018 debut The House on Half Moon Street introduced sleuth Leo Stanhope, a man with a secret. Leo, then working as a coroner’s assistant, is transgender and living with the fear of exposure which would ruin his life, given the attitudes of the time. Devastated by the death of his true love, Maria, Leo set out to find her murderer. This opener for the new Victorian murder mystery series was original and the very satisfying. In The Butcher of Berner Street things have changed for Leo, he is now a journalist for the Daily Chronicle, his medical career thwarted. However, the danger of exposure is a constant threat he must negotiate. Again this is a well crafted mystery, Leo is a fully rounded character and the supporting cast are eclectic, eccentric and vaguely Dickensian. Reeve weaves the mystery into a fascinating social and cultural background, the kind of detail you don’t find in the standard history books on the era, bringing London and the East End to life in a riot of smells and colours – good and bad. Reeve gets the social mores of the upper classes and the working classes living in poverty and destitution equally well as the tale flits across the city and between the social strata. The Butcher of Berner Street is as entertaining a historical mystery as I’ve read this year.
It begins when Leo is called to a penny gaff on Berner Street, Whitechapel, by a note warning of a murder about to happen. He takes constable Pallett with him in case the note has some validity. Pallett is tall and as ‘conspicuous as a lighthouse’ even without his uniform. The crowd has gathered for the night’s fights, first up the Hungarian champion, Lady Vostek, she soon smashes her opponent and Drake, the ring master/referee and owner of the gaff, opens the floor to challengers. The gent who steps into the ring is cocksure, needless to say he needs to be carried out again on his back. The main event follows and then, suddenly the lights go out.
But it’s not murder, at least not yet. Leo is disappointed that he has been used, tricked into attending an event to boost its publicity, there was no crime to prevent or solve, nor anything to write about. A few days later Leo is enjoying a pie and a chat with his widowed ‘friend’, Mrs Rosie Flowers, when word comes that Drake is now, in fact, dead. Leo with Rosie in tow heads to Whitechapel. Detective sergeant Ripley is on scene, Drake’s partner, a dandy by the name of Coffey, took the body down, a distressed Mrs Drake found her husband hanging. Leo is allowed to examine the corpse, his medical training proving very useful, he is able to pronounce that this was murder, not suicide. As Ripley jumps to the conclusion that Coffey must have done it, Leo is more circumspect. Mysteriously, Lady Vostek, the Hungarian champion, is nowhere to be found. So as Leo and Rosie’s relationship develops they are drawn into investigating Drake’s murder. There are red herrings and twists and personal danger for Leo, to a greater or lesser extent the suffragists cause and Catholicism are involved in a very Victorian melodrama.
Reeve entertaining mystery is enhanced by his original creation Leo Stanhope, an intriguing proto-detective whose personal struggle with his concealed identity adds a frisson to the novel. This is a perfect winter evening read.
Review by Paul Burke
Bloomsbury, hardback, ISBN 9781526612717, 12/11/20