Laura Shepherd-Robinson – Daughters Of Night
Published by Pan Books, paperback £8.99; also available in ebook and audiobook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher as I was part of the March 2022 Bloody Scotland Book Club panel discussing the novel. You can see the panel discussion on the festival’s YouTube channel here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWbdLbF7r6Q
First, the official blurb: London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline “Caro” Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thief-taker Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives. But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know…
Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first book, Blood & Sugar, was nominated for many prizes, won several, and was praised by writers, critics, bloggers and everyone else you can think of. And yet I have still not got round to reading it… However, thanks to the Bloody Scotland Book Club, I find myself skipping ahead to Daughters Of Night (and recently longlisted for a CWA Dagger and the Theakstons prize).
We’re in London, in 1782, and Caroline Corsham – Caro – is heading to a secret, risky rendezvous in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. At the agreed meeting point, she finds a mortally wounded woman who whispers “He knows” as she dies in Caro’s arms. You’re a tougher reader than I if you can put the book down and walk away from it now!
The dead woman, whom Caro knew as Lucia, a Naples noblewoman, has a very different identity as Bow Street magistrate Sir Amos Fox tells Caro and her brother when they visit to discuss the case. On learning that Lucia is in fact Lucy, and a high-class prostitute to boot, the magistrate and his men lose interest in apprehending the murderer. This is not good enough for Caro, and she enlists Peregrine Child, a former magistrate but now a lowly thief-taker – roughly the equivalent of a private investigator – to help her find Lucy’s killer.
Child, in investigating Lucy’s death and her life, finds he is being pre-empted by other asking questions. After a shocking incident, he discovers these men are agents of the Home Office, What is their interest in the death of a prostitute? So much for Caro’s assumption that Fox and his team were fobbing her off out of disinterest; it seems in fact they were covering up their very active interest.
Caro has other problems to deal with on top of Lucy’s death: her husband is abroad on government business, her older brother Ambrose is worrying the family, and her intermittent illness has nothing to do with bad oysters.
There’s a missing girl, a missing prostitute and a missing wife; a money-lender who is not above a little blackmail, and a gentleman’s secret club which proclaims it believes in freedom (but of course that freedom only applies to people like them). Mystery is piled on mystery, and Caro and Child discover that individuals from every level of society are part of the picture they are building. Secrets and lies, and coercion and conspiracy, are everywhere they turn.
It’s a rare crime novel set in the past that doesn’t also obliquely or overtly point out modern parallels. Police attitudes to murdered sex workers (and to women who make a fuss about such things); the hypocrisy of society on men and women having affairs; the cruelty behind the charm of arrogant, privileged men, and men controlling the women in their life – it’s all very familiar.
Despite facing personal scandal and very real threats, Caro remains determined to find out who killed Lucy and was behind the wider schemes. She is in that a very modern woman, which some readers may say is anachronistic – the concept of feminism didn’t really get going until the late 19th century – but why should a woman of 1782 not have these qualities too? The idea that all women submitted willingly to the demands of patriarchal society is a myth, and Caro is an excellent reminder of this.
The 18th century setting is beautifully realised and rich in detail – obviously a large amount of research has gone into this novel, but it is employed with such skill that it becomes simply the world the characters move through, and not something that distracts from the story. The language too is just right – not too stiltedly exact to the period; not too jarringly modern – the sprinkling of period terms give us a nice flavour while being easily understood from the context. This all sounds obvious, but while Shepherd-Robinson makes it look easy, there are plenty of clunky books out there to prove it’s harder than it looks.
The former classical studies student in me loved the Greek and Roman mythology strand, in Agnetti’s paintings and in Simon Dodd-Bellingham’s collecting, and how those stories feed into the wider themes about secrets, and about the treatment of women. I also love the way lighter moments are sprinkled through the book to leaven the tougher parts: Caro’s young son Gabriel hunting a mouse; the pineapples, and in particular some of the acerbic thoughts of the characters – the difference between brothers Simon and Neddy at a ball; Child thinking the supper house he is in would be “much improved by a house fire” due to its patrons.
I didn’t guess whodunnit – though I kicked myself for not grabbing an earlier hint as it was revealed. And I certainly didn’t see the final unveilings coming; the details remain slippery and twist out of your grasp until almost the final page. Like a perfectly designed menu, each course – each plot strand – satisfies individually and also adds up to a greater whole.
Daughters Of Night was definitely not my usual read, but I hugely enjoyed my visit to Georgian London. There were rich settings, rounded and believable characters, action and intrigue – and I never felt the story sag once over those 550 or so pages. Blood & Sugar has jumped onto the “must read soon” part of my TBR list.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson worked in politics for nearly 20 years before re-entering normal life to complete an MA in Creative Writing at City University. Blood & Sugar, her first novel, won the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown and the Specsavers/Crimefest Best Debut Novel prize; was a Waterstones Thriller of the Month, and a Guardian and Telegraph novel of the year. It was also shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and the Sapere Historical Dagger; the Goldsboro Glass Bell; and the Amazon Publishing/Capital Crime Best Debut Novel, as well as being longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Daughters of Night is her second novel.