Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.
Caroline Corsham’s life is forever altered the night she stumbles over the brutalised body of a woman she thought she knew…and hears her dying words. Caro can’t get the tortured whisper of ‘he knows’ out of her mind. Could it be about the secret she holds close? But then everything changes. It stuns her to discover that her ‘friend’ was not an Italian noblewoman, but a high-class prostitute. One with dangerous acquaintances in both high and low society. It’s clear that the police intend to brush the murder aside. After all, who cares about a dead whore? But Caro isn’t the type of lady to let things slide. Hiring the thief-taker Peregrine Child to assist her enquiries, she sets out to discover what happened in the bower of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens that evening. And it turns out that there are, in fact, a good number of people taking an interest in this murdered girl, because they all have something to hide. To bring the killer to justice, Caro is going to have to put everything she has on the line…
Child surveyed the women he passed, trying to pick the harlots out from the wives. It was no easy task. They bought their silks and satins from the same mantua-makers, their plumed hats from the same milliners, and, of course, they fucked the same men.
The first thing to note about Daughters of Night is that it’s a story rich in historical detail, cinematic and yet fundamentally lived-in. This is no sanitised version of the past, but neither is it a caricature. The depiction of the Georgian underworld is layered with threat and possibility, but in the author’s hands it is a world made real, every person and place vividly depicted, each made plausible beyond the demands of the plot. From the Whore’s Club to the artist’s salon, the gin shops and private men’s clubs, each setting feels authentically realised, populated with characters who are fleshed out and vibrant on the page. They are, however, far from being a bunch of honest, hardworking citizens with not a conviction to their name. If you go into this assuming every person has a dodgy past (and possibly an even dodgier present), you wouldn’t be far wrong. The sheer wealth of potential suspects and shady individuals means that this is a puzzle that will keep you guessing right until the end. In the meantime, you’ll be riveted by a twisty journey full of misdirection. Each revelation is crafted with precision, following the investigative path bulldozed by Caro’s unrelenting methods of persuasion and Peregrine’s sharp eye for lies and half truths. Caro, in particular, is an incredible character. Even at her most challenging, I was unashamedly cheering her on. She is near fearless; partly due to the assumed protections accorded by her class, wealth, and gender, but more importantly, and more appealingly, her boldness is that of a person determined to set things right. It’s this aspect of her personality that keeps her moving forwards even as the men around her try to constrain her action and even more so when it becomes clear that it’s not only prostitutes who are in danger of losing their lives. When the reputations, and fortunes, of important men are threatened, anybody who rocks the boat is in danger of being thrown overboard. Does she let this stop her? Hell no. Clearly, I’m a huge fan. I really hope we get meet her again someday.
The second is that for all that this was an engrossing murder mystery, it was the interweaving of larger themes which elevated the book to the class of unmissable fiction. The role of women is an obvious focus, but equally the author examines the power of wealth and tradition, of corruption and injustice, as well as the conflict between various communities and those of whom they disapprove. The role of social expectation and judgement in moderating behaviour occurs in all levels of society represented, a backdrop against which an individual’s character (or lack thereof) can be measured according to community, personal, or modern ideals. These questions underlie all the action, giving the reader an intriguing glimpse into contemporary patterns of thinking. Importantly, there are no disapproving overtones imposed from today. While the book explores the Georgian sex trade in its various forms, it doesn’t ever feel voyeuristic. According to the historical notes at the end of the novel, ‘one in five female Londoners had participated in prostitution at some point in their lives’. In a world like this, the sex is the least interesting part. And the author knows it. What she offers here is a look at the people involved, mostly women and girls, whose various experiences highlight the limitations of female agency in a time dominated by men. The precarity of female lives is clear. Even if some of the women are able to make choices, they do so within a framework of male control and desire. Regardless, this is not just a litany of downtrodden women to be pitied. As always, those at the bottom find their own ways of managing, exploiting, or escaping the rules others oppose upon them. In the end, it’s the women who make this story and who linger in the mind afterwards.
Clever, compelling, and labyrinthine in its plotting, this is a fantastically fun read. There’s no doubt that this will be on my favourites of 2020 list.
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ARC via Netgalley