I really enjoyed this Victorian-era mystery/thriller by Karen Odden, although I did have some issues with the pacing at the end. Nell Hallam is a young woman who sneaks out of her brother’s home every night to play piano at the Octavian Music House. She’s masquerading as a man so she can earn enough money to play piano for the Academy. Her brother, a detective for Scotland Yard, is investigating a ring of house thieves, when Nell finds a friend from the Octavian brutally beaten in an alley.
To this already interesting storyline, Odden adds an intriguing layer to this character. Nell is worried that she may have inherited her mother’s mental illness (manic depression) which her doctor feels may be related to her passion for playing the piano. Nell is warned away from any kind of strong emotions or obsessive behavior, but it’s hard to be truly devoted to an art and not have strong feelings about it.
Nell is an interesting character, brave and loyal and willing to go way out of her way to help her friends and family. At times she seemed fairly innocent, for someone working nights in a music hall. She rushes headlong into danger and doesn’t seem to think through the consequences. I liked that she’s smart enough to see through a character who is clearly manipulating her. But I also liked that Odden doesn’t make her too perfect. For example, Nell clearly knows nothing about how to effectively act like a man. She gives herself away at every turn (which made me want to scream at her but was also a little funny).
This is a fast-paced, enjoyable read with interesting characters. I really appreciated the historical detail Odden brought to the period, relating to piano, music halls, medicine and organized crime. The book is vivid and atmospheric. Odden has a nice way of explaining detailed information about the time in a way that enhances rather than distracts from the story.
A minor criticism is that the story didn’t always feel realistic. For example, her brother Matthew tells her an awful lot about his investigations, which didn’t seem terribly professional, especially since he knows any of that knowledge could get her killed. And Nell’s frequent escapes from danger seemed increasingly unrealistic given her character’s limited experience. I also didn’t love that Odden introduced the storyline about Nell’s friend Marceline and then sort of dropped the story halfway into the book.
I was a touch disappointed in the last third of the book, because I felt Odden had created such interesting characters with real issues and then the last part of the book is all action. For example, Nell has some serious ethical dilemmas posed to her in the latter part of the book, which I really appreciated, but little time is spent thinking through them. Is her love of music more important than her mental health? Is she willing to sacrifice a life-long dream to help a friend? Should a budding romance take priority over family loyalty? I realize action is expected in this type of novel, but my own preference is for character-driven stories, so I would have preferred less frantic running around and more thought and conversation.
This book isn’t a Victorian mystery in the usual sense; it’s more of a thriller than a whodunit. Nell isn’t a sleuth, she’s someone who lands in the middle of a lot of trouble and then fights to get herself and her friends out in one piece.
This is a fun, enjoyable period novel and one I recommend, despite my few issues. I also recommend Odden’s previous novel, A Lady in the Smoke, a well-researched and thoughtful historical mystery.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Edelweiss and publisher William Morrow. The book published November 6, 2018.