set in 1888
[Dot Allbones has gone to look at a murder scene]
[The constable on duty tells her:] ‘This is a place of commerce, so after the hours of business very few people pass this way.’
One of the women said, ‘Except the type who met her end here.’
That riled me. I said, ‘And what type would that be?’
Valentine put his hand on my arm. He said, ‘My friend knew the person who was murdered.’
So then they became quite interested in me. Who was I, in my good serge coat and my velvet tam o’shanter, to know that type of person?
She said ‘Only one thing a woman’d be on the streets for at that hour.’
And the other said, ‘Yes. When decent folk are in their beds. They entice men into dark corners. This place is known for it.’
She pulled her shawl around her, very satisfied with herself and Valentine murmured, ‘Let it alone, Miss Dot. Don’t be upsetting yourself.’
commentary: I am a huge fan of Laurie Graham, and feel very strongly that she is an author who is not taken seriously enough just because she is funny and entertaining (just like Lissa Evans). Graham has written a wide variety of novels, but my favourites have been the ones where she takes real-life historical events and tells a story via a fictional character who might have existed… so the perfect example is her book about the Kennedy family, narrated by a nursemaid from the household. It’s called The Importance of Being Kennedy, and there were a couple of entries on the blog. She also wrote a startlingly good book about the 1930s Abdication Crisis, called Gone with the Windsors (already one of the great titles…).
This latest one I snapped up from Net Galley, ie a review copy, just because it was Laurie Graham. I could see it was a historical novel, but I knew nothing else about it. The heroine is classic Graham: a solid trouper in the music halls of Victorian times – she does comic songs and skits – living her life with quite a lot of past and an interesting present too.
Slowly we find out more about her and her friends and family, and her lodgings in the East End of London in the 1880s. Graham has an amazing ability to create a wholly convincing voice, and Dot Allbones appears before us fully formed.
I haven’t yet touched on a major part of the book – and that’s because I didn’t know about it beforehand, and that added hugely to my enjoyment, a slow realization of what the plot was about. Now, this isn’t meant to be a secret, and so it is not by any stretch of the imagination a spoiler to reveal it. Laurie Graham talks freely about it in this interview on the book, and it is mentioned in all the publicity. But if you really don’t want to know, stop reading now.
The book is about the Jack the Ripper crimes: the women murdered in a small area of London in 1888, and the perpetrator whose identity is still a mystery now. It’s spelled out on the cover of the book – and I actually think there’s a spoiler in the blurb on amazon. There is a name that is not mentioned until almost two-thirds of the way into the book (no – not Jack, the name of one of his victims).
It’s a chancy business trying to tell a warm-hearted, entertaining story about these crimes, but Graham – of course – pulls it off. She makes the women central to the story: the victims and their friends. Possibly my favourite moment in the book – and one that sums up all these features – comes when Dot sends her maid out in the morning to buy the newspapers containing reports on a victim’s inquest:
Then we [Dot, her male lodger, and the maid] all had tea and toast while we read the reports.
Our heroine is sharp, and caustic, but also kind and generous, and doesn’t judge others harshly.
A really excellent book. There will be another entry.