In the spirit of anarchy, I chose to read this book – the second of the Leo Stanhope series – without having read the first.
I know! ANARCHY starts from this!
Being honest, I don’t think it mattered a jot: Reeve introduces his transgender Victorian protagonist essentially from scratch with enough – possibly too much – explanation, and he only occasionally references events in The House on Half Moon Street. And when he does it is with sufficient exposition to fill in any gaps.
Let’s turn to the idea, the concept, of a transgender Victorian had bags of potential and reminded me of some of the episodes of Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets on Audible. In that, Fry explodes our assumptions and stereotypes of the Victorians as repressed, and strait laced, revealing them to – unsurprisingly – have the whole gamut of human passions, identities and passions and peccadillos, exploring what we would term today their sexual and gender identities and sexualities. Add into that memories of the wonderful Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet – oh, those were great books! and I must go back for a re-read! – and my perception of the Victorians is wide enough to welcome Leo Stanhope – born Charlotte or Lottie Pritchard – as a first person transgender male narrator and protagonist was intriguing. Throw into the mix a good old fashioned murder, and I’m in!
The murder here is of a young woman, Dora, found shallowly buried in the courtyard of the eponymous Anarchists’ Club – a hostel for socialists, revolutionaries and radicals in conflict with the Victorian establishment. Stanhope is brought into the case because the dead woman had his name written on a piece of paper in her pocket, having visited him in the pharmacy at which he was lodging a few days earlier.
Reeve seems to throw everything into the mix to try ramp up the tension: the note in Dora’s pocket implicates Leo and the police are as much a threat as the murderer and anarchists; Dora, when she had visited Leo, had two children in tow who are missing following their mother’s murder; when at the scene, Leo comes across John Thackery, a boy he knew from his childhood, who blackmails him with exposure unless he provides a false alibi – and who but a murderer would want a false alibi; Leo’s gender and identity create a state of hypervigilance – of which we are constantly reminded – and the threats of brutal “treatments” if revealed; his life is necessarily bound around with secrets as tightly as his “cilice” binds his breasts, over which he could trip up at any moment.
And yet… somehow none of this tension quite materialises. Leo struck me as very passive throughout and reactive, motivated more than anything by a desire to not be involved, to hide, to retreat. He didn’t have much agency, even when he found and rescued and chose to fight for the missing children. He wasn’t detecting in any sense – although it is possible that the conclusion hints that he might in future novels – just present and responding to others.
I wonder – and I say this as a cis male reader – whether that is a reflection of Reeve as a cis male writer’s perception of a trans character… Maybe that is too harsh. But the nature of being trans seemed very prominent and a little clumsily handled. The heavy handed historical research shoe horned in. The confrontations with her sister and father who refuse to accept him save as Lottie. Mrs Flowers – the only character who seems to accept Leo for himself, knowing the truth – who says things like
Did you really want to be a man, or just want not to be a woman?
Throw in transvestite actors in the music hall, homosexuals, a privileged boy doting on a singer and it becomes almost like sexuality and gender bingo!
The plot was a tad slow, due perhaps in part to Leo’s lack of agency, and its conclusion for me was both predictable – fairly inevitable from about the midway point – and overly melodramatic.
I will probably go back to the first book – and probably pick up subsequent ones – when I run out of other reads. There was nothing about this that I particularly disliked. But nothing that puts Reeve into the “Must Read” category of authors.