I have a second-hand copy of the hardback first edition here (published in 1991) and on the back of the dustcover are the usual adulatory snippets from The Guardian, The TLS, etc. One from the Daily Express caught my eye before I ever bought the book.
Excellent … a witty and original story set in the fashionable London of 1874.
Now I had already read and reviewed Dead Man Riding which is chronologically the first Nell Bray story and is set in the year 1900, so while reading I kept an eye open for internal evidence, and in fact it is set in 1909, not 1874. And in Biarritz, not London.
However, to give the Daily Express critic his due, the story is “excellent … witty and original.”
When it opens, Nell, a suffragette, has just been released from Holloway (a notorious prison for women in central London) after serving three months for hurling a brick through a window at Number Ten. (The Prime Minister’s residence. These days the whole of Downing Street is sealed off!) But there is no peace for the wicked. Emmeline Pankhurst, the grande dame of the wonderful suffragette movement, informs Nell that a prostitute (whisper the word!) has left the suffragettes £50,000 in her will. Should they refuse it on principle? Of course not! is Nell’s response. So because she doesn’t find it shocking, and because she speaks French, Nell is the one chosen to go off to Biarritz, where the “highly successful prostitute” Topaz Brown lived, worked and finally committed suicide, and organise everything.
Only it soon becomes evident that Topaz would never have committed suicide, she enjoyed life too much. That in fact she was murdered.
And so begins what was, at least until Dead Man Riding was written, Nell’s first investigation, and our introduction to one of my favourite characters from crime fiction.