It’s a really good day when you find a new writer who publishes clever, literate murder mysteries. It’s an especially good day when this writer has been at it for a while and there’s a backlog of titles for you to work through. And it’s a terrific day when the writer is Andrew Taylor, and your introduction to him is Bleeding Heart Square.
His U.S. publisher, Hyperion, is issuing some of this previous books along with this one, and they all have beautiful covers with architectural photographs, vaguely sinister, dark-toned — not unlike the covers of the Alan Furst books. Say what you will, these designers know just how to signal the contents of these novels. Bleeding Heart Square is set in 1934 London, as economic conditions reduce the options of many Britons, and the Fascist party starts to stir up all kinds of ugly trouble. But Taylor, clever man, maps this situation onto a 19th-century framework. Did you remember that Bleeding Heart Yard is the setting of a big chunk of Little Dorrit? (It’s OK, I had to check, and I just read the darn thing.) Furthermore certain characters in Bleeding Heart Square — the alcoholic gentleman ne’er-do-well, the physically imposing and menacing landlord — share DNA with Dickens’ characters.
But Taylor’s not slavish, and the mystery part eventually overruns the Dickensian scaffolding. Lydia Langstone, 28 and pretty, has left her boorish rich husband (soon to join the British Union of Fascists) because he bullies her. She flees to her estranged father, Captain Ingleby-Lewis, who lives in a squalid boarding house in Bleeding Heart Square. Taylor is especially good on the nitty-gritty reality here: Lydia left home with “Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones’ Own but she had forgotten her toothbrush.”
There’s a murder, there are sinister clues (literal bleeding hearts are regularly sent to the frightening landlord, Serridge). There’s a downtrodden police investigator (more Dickens) and a fresh-faced journalist who falls for Lydia. Several sections take place in the country but it’s more Stella Gibbons than Angela Thirkell. No laughs, though.
Still, all the literary allusions bring a level of playfulness to the plotting. Which, by the way, is excellent. Twists and turns all the way, right to the end. A really artful piece of work.