Review: Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders by Kate Griffin

London, 1880.
In the opium-laced streets of Limehouse the ferocious lady Ginger rules with ruthless efficiency.  But The Lady is not happy.  Somebody is stealing her most valuable assets – her dancing girls – and that someone has to be found and made to pay.

Bold, impetuous and with more brains than she cares to admit, seventeen-year-old seamstress Kitty Peck reluctantly performs the role of bait for the kidnappers.  But as Kitty’s scandalous and terrifying act becomes the talk of the city, she finds herself facing danger even more deadly and horrifying than The Lady.

This thrilling historical mystery takes us deep into the underworld of Victorian London.  Take nothing at face values, for Kitty is about to go down a path of discover that will have consequences not only for herself, but for those she holds most dear…

The story behind the discovery of Kate Griffin, and Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders, is an unusual one; the novel was published because its first chapter was the winner of a competition run by the Stylist magazine and Faber aimed at finding new writing talent.  I can see why The Musical Hall Murders caught their attention; this story takes us through the seedy territories of the ‘Barons’ of East London and Docklands, full of music, laughter, sex and vicious brutality.  ‘Paradise’ is The Lady Ginger’s patch, in Limehouse, and Kitty works in The Gaudy, helping out with costumes backstage and sweeping up what clients leave behind them at the end of the night, until she’s summoned and informed that she now has a new purpose.  She will help to uncover who is behind the disappearance of girls from the music halls, whilst also becoming the star of a spectacular new attraction, the like of which has never before been seen in the capital.  It could be a threat to Lady Ginger’s dominance, or it could be the start of something altogether more sinister.

Kitty Peck and the Musical Hall Murders was certainly a fast-paced, enjoyable read, with many points to recommend it.  Kitty’s narrative voice throughout the novel was great – she is an open, honest, likeable narrator, somewhat naive, always curious and learning and fiercely loyal to her friends and her brother.  However she is far from innocent – she’s very much part of ‘Paradise’ and the musical hall culture, well aware of the many and varied licentious activities going on around her, even if she avoids the worst vices herself.  She’s also fallible, foolish even, but that only made me warm to her more.

Victorian London was a place of huge contrasts and contradictions, and Griffin uses music hall culture to highlight this.  We’re given a glimpse into a dirty, dangerous but still exotic world, and it’s interesting that it’s also a world where some people, at least, are more accepting of alternative lifestyles.  The streets of ‘Paradise’ are home to an incredible variety of inhabitants; we find shopkeepers, landladies, proprietors of entertainment venues, sailors, dockhands but also beggars, street urchins, and women (mainly women, that is) awaiting customers.  And among these characters on the fringes of society come the patrons of the music halls, ranging from the lowest to the highest class, looking for a great evening out.

Of course, this is also a mystery, with disappearing girls and plenty of sinister figures who could be behind it all.  Kitty plays the role of the unwilling detective, initially forced to do so by Lady Ginger.  However, as she fails to make progress and realises that the girls disappearing are those she knows and cares for, she realises she has no choice but to discover what’s happening and save them if she can.  Add to this a missing older brother, a Italian artist with a burned face and the most explicit painting ever seen, and you’re left with a thrilling yarn to sink your teeth into.

This is Griffin’s debut novel and I think it is possible to tell; while the characters are very well drawn, and the mystery is unusual and exciting without being too fanciful, this isn’t as polished as it could be, and less literary than you might expect from Faber.  However, it’s bursting with life and full of thrills as Kitty strives to uncover who’s behind the music hall murders.  I’m pleased to see the next instalment of her adventures should be arriving soon.

Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is out in paperback from Faber and Faber, priced £7.99


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