The somnambulist and the psychic thief
Gas lamps and ectoplasm
it’s not often you can describe a detective story set in foggy, gas-lit 1890s London as an ideal summer holiday read, and yet somehow Lisa Tuttle has managed it. Her latest novel is a hugely enjoyable confection of back-alley cutpurses, society séances, dastardly villainy, and just the faintest hint of will-they-won’tthey between the two main characters, narrator Aphrodite “Di” Lane, and her partner in detecting, Jasper Jesperson.
Di fetches up in London in need of a new job. She soon becomes the Watson to Jesperson’s Sherlock, and together they drink a lot of tea and investigate cases grounded firmly in the fascinations and taboos of the time.
Lane and Jesperson have an appealing dynamic, one of both mutual respect and a degree of creative friction. Importantly, while Di may be a woman in late Victorian England, neither her partner nor the plot expect her to play second fiddle. As part of a wider emphasis on genuinely rich, thoughtful worldbuilding, Tuttle surrounds Di with women in a variety of roles – not simply the types of so much historical fiction cliché, but also skilled operators in the fledgling telephone exchange, unscrupulous paranormal researchers, and mediums.
It all makes for smart and entertaining fiction that has fun with the touchstones of Victorian literature – Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle are both name-checked, and have clearly influenced Tuttle’s atmosphere and characterisation – while also exploring, in a light-hearted, light-touch way, what lies behind the curtain. Nic Clarke