During this time of lockdown, historical crime fiction offers a peculiar type of comfort. For many people, comfort reading is about re-reading, returning to familiar pages. For historical crime fiction comfort readers like me, it’s often about the new novel, with a new plot to provide a new fix. The comfort is in the formula, in that boxed-up world safely shut away in an another century. The problem is that it is easy to write historical fiction badly, and there is a lot of it about. So, when you happen upon an excellent one, you feel you have alighted upon a prize.
Until recently, author Kate Griffin worked for The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Her work took her to the crumbling edifice of Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, the oldest grand music hall in the world. In an interview with crimetime.co.uk she described visiting the site with engineers in 2012. “My colleagues went away from Wilton’s that day with a detailed structural analysis. I went away with a novel,” she said.
On her commute home one evening later that year she collected a copy of Stylist magazine. It mentioned its Faber / Stylist Crime Fiction competition, which requested entrants submit 6,000 words of crime fiction featuring a female protagonist. She shoved the magazine away and forgot about it. During the rainy Golden Jubilee weekend of 2012, she found the magazine under the sofa, while cleaning. She started to write, entered the competition, and won, beating 364 other authors.
What she sent in was a scene from Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders. It’s a face-paced and enjoyable adventure mystery. Kitty Peck, backstage theatre skivvy, becomes coerced into assisting a music hall owner solve a mystery. Four dancing girls from the music halls have disappeared and Lady Ginger, owner of three music halls, charges Kitty with finding them. The prize, should Kitty succeed, is to see her brother, who vanished two years previously in murky circumstances. Kitty is directed into a performance, every evening she sings whilst suspended above the music hall crowds in a high cage. From here she will spy on the grotty, gin-drenched hordes below, seeking out information for Lady Ginger. Lady Ginger is a terrifying creation. She’s Miss Havisham, as reimagined on heroin, with ‘sticky black gums’, no teeth, and black hands ‘stained like a coal boy’s’ from heavy opium use.
Late Victorian London has been over-visited by writers of historical fiction, and it’s dangerous territory; it can so easily fall into hyperbole or caricatures. So, it is refreshing that the novel feels vital and new. The challenge with historical fiction is to make the reader feel the era, rather than spell it out. Writing in the first person as Kitty, Griffin makes the reader smell the yellowish, gaslit hallways, or feel the glass crystal on a costume uncomfortably digging into flesh. Griffin also throws limelight onto Victorian cultural hypocrisy; “high” art of the exclusive Mayfair art galleries appears as diseased, perverse and sadistic, and a place where a woman can only enter if she is dressed up as a man. The halls, on the other hand, are egalitarian, ripe with commercial promise and open to both of the sexes. Notions of female propriety in the public space are, like Kitty in her cage, hauled up for the reader and turned on their head. In a world where the male gaze spends most of its time leering and peering at women, Kitty is the one with the aerial views of the drunken masses. She may appear as a spectacle in her cage, but the reader knows she is a spectator.
Echoes of the stage run through the language. Lady Ginger lashes out ‘quick as a limelight flare’ at her first meeting with Kitty Peck, who quickly reddens ‘as red as the rouge in Mrs Conway’s paint box’. Kitty’s language of a Victorian street buccaneer has a natural ease about it. Her bawdy words could be lifted from a music hall script – the theatre’s punters hang round trapped in a corridor like a ‘fart in a crinoline’, and a female rival turns up like a ‘boxer in a frock’. But these phrases assist in immersing you into the gritty, tawdry world of Limehouse music halls, and their construction never seems contrived.
This is a rollicking tale that I wish I had heard of earlier. The best news is that there are three others – Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill-Fortune (2015), Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow (2017) and the most recent one Kitty Peck and the Parliament of Shadows (2019). The reviews were excellent when the first book was published in 2013, but with only 118 positive, mainly 5 star, reviews on Amazon, it’s clear she deserves more exposure than perhaps she received.
I am glad she found that magazine under her sofa and entered the competition. If she hadn’t we wouldn’t have the delight of spending a few hours in the reflected glow of Kitty Peck’s limelight in these dark times.
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