Read It For the Prose. Got Seduced by the Story
Thea Sutton did something special with this twisty psychological thriller set in late 1800s London. I don’t quite know how, but Sutton wrote this book in a prose style so perfectly pitched to the historical period that I forgot at times I was reading a book published in 2021. The story’s themes of feminism, power, privilege, media hype, police corruption, and mental illness, however, are very much of our current age.
It’s as if Henry James, Thomas Harris, and Erica Jong had a mind meld with Sutton and out came THE WOMEN OF BLACKMOUTH STREET.
There’s a little of Sherlock Holmes in there, too, with the fog, the wet cobblestones, the back alleys of London, the general creepiness of gas lamps and coal dust and workhouses and dark horses pulling darker carriages into the night. It’s a Gothic tale without a ghost, though there is a governess in charge of two children which brings to mind THE TURN OF THE SCREW, a nod perhaps to Henry James whose sister, Alice, is a character in the book. The reader also can’t help but think of Jack the Ripper as the tale of a brutal serial killer preying on actresses and prostitutes in London’s East End.
The story is told from the point of view of Georgia Buchanan, the daughter of a wealthy Bostonian, who has studied medicine and the new field of alienism, or psychology. She practices what we call “talk therapy” with her subjects, with mixed results. A scandal resulting from a patient’s suicide sent Georgia running off the London where she receives a note telling her to go to the Bedlam insane asylum. Once there, she learns about the Shoreditch Savage, a killer who’s been slicing women open and removing their reproductive organs, causing unrest in London’s poor, a situation that worries the upper classes, of course. The police commissioner wants to pin the crimes on a Jewish immigrant, but Georgia decides to find the real killer, putting herself in danger over and over again.
I rarely give five stars, and I’m going to do so because of the absolute brilliance of the prose, but with a caveat. The mystery was plotted in such a way that I felt as if I were being led down those twisty, narrow lanes that often ended nowhere. In some action scenes, I felt as if Sutton took me by the hand toward what surely would be a clue but left me staring at a blank wall. This induced a visceral feeling of frustration and unease that I’m sure mirrored the feelings of our intrepid and intelligent heroine, and was perhaps intentional. Kudos to Sutton, if so, but a warning: too much irritation and frustration can turn off a reader.
Similarly, Georgia, as narrator of the story, would often interrupt her own train of thought or recollection and go off on another tangent and never finish her story which might have revealed something important to the reader. There was always this feeling of “if Georgia would just focus!”
I suspect this, too, was done on purpose. It’s cool. Smart. Interesting. Masterful, even, to be able to do that over and over again. As a writer, I am blown away. As a reader, however, I felt irritated more times than I’d like.
In the end, the pieces of the puzzle came together. Fear not, dear reader! Loose ends were tied up. All was revealed. A few more revelations and clues along the way and a little less obfuscation would have made the book even stronger. However, I stayed up until 2 a.m. last night finishing it. I wasn’t disappointed. The ending was, if not totally surprising, satisfying and well-executed and beautifully written. I’d recommend this book to very sophisticated readers who like thrillers and mysteries but often find the actual prose uninspiring. This one has what you crave.
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