Desert Isle Keeper
Death and the Harlot
Yay! A new historical mystery author with a great start to a series! Death and the Harlot, by Georgina Clarke, is book one in the new Lizzie Hardwicke series and it’s a riveting beginning.
Lizzie Hardwicke is one of the luckier harlots in Georgian London; she has a roof over her head, regular meals, decent clothes and a better-than-average madam. But she has landed in a heap of trouble. Her last client was just found murdered in an alleyway behind her neighborhood tavern and William Davenport, sent by the Bow Street magistrate to investigate the crime, thinks Lizzie may be involved. Lizzie recognizes she’s an easy target for Bow Street and decides her best option for avoiding the noose is to solve the crime herself.
“I can’t prove to you that I didn’t thieve or kill, but I can make it my own business to find out for you who did kill George Reed.”
“Really?” He was scornful.”You pit yourself above Mr. Fielding’s men?”
“I can go where you cannot, Mr. Davenport. I can walk in places, ask questions, I can flirt and wheedle in ways that you could not imagine…the people who see things in bedrooms and alleyways will confide in me because they will trust me. They may fear or respect one of Mr. Fielding’s men, but such people will not trust them.”
So begins a tentative arrangement between Lizzie and Mr. Davenport – he agreeing to take her along for part of the investigation, she agreeing to share what she learns from the locals. Lizzie also shares with him that Mr. Reed was in possession of a large packet of papers, but when the body is examined, the packet is missing. The investigation soon shows that Mr. Reed was blackmailing many of Lizzie’s acquaintances and the list of suspects expands – a paramour of Lizzie’s being blackmailed for ruining a young girl, a young lord being blackmailed for his gaming debts, another man being blackmailed for a family secret…. Mr. Davenport and Lizzie eventually find the packet of letters but with obvious omissions. And then, to everyone’s surprise and horror, the blackmailing starts again!
Lizzie and Mr. Davenport make an interesting albeit reluctant team. He doubts her sincerity and cannot see past her occupation to the person underneath. She wishes it was otherwise but doesn’t hold it against him, and makes no apologies for her occupation.
I was respectably born, decently educated and, just six months ago, was living in the comfort of my father’s house. Now I was here: one of a small number of girls in Berwick Street, earning a living on my back. It’s strange the way Fortune deals her hand.
Here was my paradox: to leave this grotesque way of life I had to embrace it wholeheartedly. To make more money I had to earn more money.
All I know is that I didn’t intend this life, but I will make the best of it, and one day I will leave it.
And Lizzie does make the best of it – befriending and helping those less fortunate, putting her intellectual skills to work to solve the mystery of Mr. Reed’s murder (as the body count increases) and making a decent living as a whore. Not what she would have chosen but Lizzie is an interesting combination of pragmatism and hope.
Death and the Harlot boasts an intriguing mystery but has the added benefit of great writing leaving you seeing and smelling the squalor of Georgian London. The setting just comes alive.
William Davenport was a man who walked in order to arrive at places; he did not saunter or peer about at his surroundings. He was uninterested in food sellers and paid no heed to their melancholy cries offering us sustenance. He didn’t appear to notice the cluster of thin grey children sleeping underneath a broken cart at the side of the path, or the half-naked woman in the window above them, lighting a small candle – the better to display her wares to the gentlemen who walked more slowly, looking for precisely those delights.
Ms. Clarke does a wonderful job spicing the narrative with interesting secondary characters – the other whores in Lizzie’s house, their clients, the local tavern owners, the gingerbread seller, the butcher and his wife – beautifully setting the stage for future stories. There is even a well-timed cameo by John Fielding (brother of Henry), one of the real-life founders of the Bow Street Runners.
At the end of Death and the Harlot, the mystery is nicely tied up with a gripping (but believable) plot twist but everything else is left alone. Ms. Clarke does not ‘save’ Lizzie from her current reality and there is no knight in shining armour, which I appreciated. I am hopeful that Mr. Davenport will play a romantic role in the future but for now, Lizzie returns to her life as a whore if not with a smile on her face, at least with more hope for the future.
Lizzie Hardwicke is a terrific, refreshing heroine and a wonderful addition to the growing list of women detectives in historical fiction. I look forward to reading more in the series.