‘The truth is like clay: you mould it to what you want, and then it hardens.’
Set in London during the 1880s, this novel is a blend of historical and crime fiction with an intriguing protagonist. Leo Stanhope works as an assistant to a London coroner. Leo is a frequent visitor to a brothel on Half Moon Street and has fallen in love with Maria Milanes who works there. Maria seems to reciprocate his feelings, and Leo would like to take their relationship further. But Leo has a secret. He was born Charlotte Pritchard. Believing himself male, and unable to live as a female, he fled his home when aged 15. Leo has two siblings, and while he has had limited contact with his sister Jane, she is not happy to see him. Maria and Jane are two of the very few people who know Leo’s secret.
Leo’s precarious world is turned upside down the day Maria’s body is delivered to the coroner’s office. Leo is devastated and is determined to find out how (and why) Maria died. Leo’s investigations take him into dangerous territory: he finds that he did not know Maria as well as he thought he did. Can Leo find out what happened to Maria while keeping his own secrets?
This novel takes the reader into a shadowy depraved world of human trafficking. There’s a link between Maria’s death and an earlier death, originally thought to be an accidental drowning. Leo is in danger at every step, both of exposure as being transgender as well as of physical harm. Especially after he is arrested as a suspect in Maria’s murder.
Some readers may find the abuse and brutality depicted overwhelming. While I didn’t enjoy it, it served to underline the very real risks Leo was taking. I found this novel very difficult to put down once I started reading it. I wanted to know whether Leo would succeed, and I wanted to know who killed Maria and why.