The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Review published on April 8, 2018.

This is the first instalment in a new series featuring Leo Stanhope, amateur detective, and it’s a pleasingly paced historical thriller that is thoroughly entertaining. A straightforward tale well told. Leo has an interesting backstory and he is a character I can see developing nicely as the series progresses.

What is fresh and original about The House on Half Moon Street is it’s transgender hero, Leo Stanhope. Born a woman, he has always known he is a man. So he has lived as such since he was 15 and left home. Only a few people know his secret but the number is growing and the penalty for getting caught could be a life time in an institution. When the woman he loves is murdered and Leo becomes a suspect, the police don’t much care who they get for the crime and he is forced to find out what happened for himself. The grimy streets of Victorian London, the smoke and the noise are brought to life as Leo risks everything to get to the truth. Reeve has not used Leo’s identity as a gimmick, the novel is sympathetic to what it must have been like for someone in this situation, and of course it was the way some people did live there lives. The House on Half Moon Street reimagines the real issues for many people living a lie to protect themselves. So I believed in the central character, but that said, a thriller can’t survive off the back of one strong character and The House on Half Moon Street is a story that makes a lot of the ‘old’ London setting and a simple but intriguing plot. The police are a little caricatured, but it’s not a major drawback.

With the issue of gender identification and LGBT rights to the fore now, this novel seems very relevant. It has been recognised for some time that some women disguised themselves as men for their whole lives in times gone by. Women fought during the American Civil War and in Nelson’s navy along side the men. Then there is James Barry, formerly Margaret Bulkley, a woman who lived as a man in order to train as a doctor and had a bright military career (her sex was only discovered on death). Of course, these are not necessarily transgender issues; the reasons varied from remaining close to their men, to feeding their family, to fulfilling ambitions denied to women. Something not much talked about are those who knew they were in the wrong body, such as our hero, Mr. Leo Stanhope.

Leo left home a girl at fifteen and became a man in London, working as a clerk in the medical profession. Assistant to the brilliant pathologist/surgeon Mr. Hurst, Stanhope tackles the dangers of everyday living in a transgender identity as he hunts a killer. All for the love of Maria, the curvy prostitute from Madame Brafton’s dolly house (brothel). Hurst conducts an autopsy, Stanhope takes notes, the man has drowned – no suspicious circumstances. The wife Mrs. Flowers doesn’t believe this as her Jack was a strong swimmer. In his pocket a beer bottle with the word ‘mercy’ written on the label, is this a clue? That night Stanhope visits Maria Milanese and mentioned his disquiet at the widow’s reaction, something seems to chill the air. Maria asks if Leo had ever just wanted to run away? But the thought gets lost in their passion. A few days later Maria winds up on the mortuary slab and Leo is plunged into a nightmare.

Reeve’s descriptions are vivid, this about Hurst:

“His specialism was the washed up, pushed off, dug up and poisoned of London, all the poor wretches whose cause of death was considered suspicious.”

His style easy and light (a touch too light for me but I think most people won’t find that a drawback). Leo Stanhope is a unique hero, the issue of gender identity giving an added frisson to his love and desire. I am sure that there is a future for this new historical detective series.

Paul Burke 3/4

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve
Raven Books 9781408892695 hbk May 2018

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