Grippingly gruesome, or gruesomely gripping? Maybe I’ll go for the double and just describe this extraordinary novel as gruesomely gruesome, because boy, author Alex Reeve doesn’t spare us from authentic Victorian blood and gore.
Leo Stanhope is a medical assistant helping with post-mortems. He tells us that is accustomed to watching the secrets of death revealed as bodies are sliced open, lethal stab wounds probed, crushed skulls sawn apart to reveal the smashed brains inside.
And Leo has his own secret, potentially as deadly as what did for the cadavers he sees every day in the morgue.
Because Leo was born Charlotte, daughter of a respectable country cleric. But for as long as he can remember, he knows that he was meant to be a man. Tortured by his imprisonment in a developing young woman’s body, he finally runs away from home at 15 when his father dies. He comes to London, binds up his breasts tight, and enters into the world of men.
The risks of discovery in Victorian England scarcely bear thinking about. Unmasked, Leo could find himself sent to the gallows, or at best committed to a mental asylum for ‘corrective’ treatment. Leo tells us he knows of one case of a woman caught living as a man who escaped the death sentence only to have doctors ‘run electricity through his skull, and they might have drilled into it as well if he hadn’t declared himself gratefully and forever healed’.
Leo lives in fear.
Just one person in London knows Leo’s secret, and accepts him for who he is. Maria, a beautiful young prostitute working in a brothel close to where he lives and works.
Leo is deeply in love with Maria, and not only because he feels safe with her. He is infatuated with her sexually, too. (Prude alert: Alex Reeve does not shy away from describing the kind of sex Maria and Leo enjoy together, right down to the graphic business of prosthetics. You have been warned).
Then, tragedy strikes. A day or so after a visit to the brothel, Leo arrives at work to help with the post mortem on the body of a suspected murder victim, a young woman who has been bludgeoned, thrown into the Thames and washed up at London Bridge. The gurney is wheeled into the examination room, and the sheet covering the victim’s face is pulled away. Leo is stunned.
‘It was Maria. Three words that do nothing to sum up that moment. It was Maria, lying there dead. It was my Maria.’
Things rapidly go from bad to worse for Leo. As one of the last people to see Maria alive, he is arrested on suspicion of her killing. Thrown into a crowded prison cell with just one shared bucket as a toilet, he is terrified that his secret will be discovered when he is forced to relieve himself.
And all this in just the opening few chapters! The House on Half Moon Street goes on to develop into a thrilling psychological murder mystery, with the atmosphere of Victorian London hauntingly brought to life. Ingenious, entertaining, captivating and wonderfully plotted, this is a marvellous debut from a fine writer.