2013’s Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is the first volume in Kate Griffin’s Kitty Peck series.
It’s 1880 and London. Seventeen-year-old orphan Kitty Peck makes her living working backstage in the Paradise theatre, one of the many enterprises owned by crime lord Lady Ginger.
Kitty is summoned to an audience with her boss, an audience in which she is told that she owes a debt. Kitty’s brother Joey owed Lady Ginger (or so the crime boss says). Since Joey vanished two years earlier, Kitty will have to make good on the debt.
Women have been vanishing. Nothing new in 1880 Britain. It would be of little concern to the crime boss save for the fact that this time all the missing women are her employees. Are Lady Ginger’s business rivals testing her? Will they try to take over her criminal empire if she seems weak? Lady Ginger’s cunning plan is to order Kitty to find out who or what is responsible. Or else.
Lady Ginger explains further. Joey is not, as Kitty believed, dead. He is still alive and well. That condition could change if Kitty displeases Lady Ginger. He could be delivered to Kitty in very small chunks or he might simply be killed outright should Kitty fail to unravel the mystery.
Step one: Kitty transitions from stagehand to showgirl, suspended in a cage high above the audience. This provides her with a bird’s eye view of the audience, allowing her to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. It’s also rather dangerous, as there’s no net underneath the cage. Well, that keeps her alert.
Step two: women still keep vanishing despite Kitty’s vigilance. Kitty launches a street-level investigation, adopting male attire to view the unsavoury underworld from a masculine perspective. She does not find the missing women. She does find a very suggestive bit of evidence in the form of a macabre painting that features the missing women.
Her find is noticed by the entity responsible for the disappearances. While Kitty still has no idea who might be responsible, the reverse is not true: her quarry now knows exactly who she is.
Note: This Kate Griffen is not the same Kate Griffin who is a pen-name for Catherine Webb.
A lot of period mysteries would faff about a bit establishing the setting and introducing the characters before bang! someone’s dead or missing, a mystery. Griffin, the author, takes a different tack: she starts with Kitty’s audience with Lady Ginger and then provides backstory. I enjoyed the change (though I must point out that starting in media res is also a venerable ploy).
You may ask “surely, a notorious crime lord with legions of intimidating Chinese people at her beck and call must have someone on staff better suited to tracking down the person or persons responsible for abducting dance-hall girls than one random stagehand?” Probably Lady Ginger does (and maybe they’re hard at work just off stage) … but as it turns out Lady Ginger is trying to deal with a number of issues in parallel and dragging Kitty into the Music Hall Murders case serves a number of purposes.
Unfortunately. the mystery is not especially mysterious. The villain is eluding justice less because they’re a criminal mastermind and more because the authorities don’t give a rap if lower-class women vanish. I missed the frustrated puzzlement that is the hallmark of the best mysteries, but I still enjoyed the book. Griffin’s setting and characters are engaging. This is an interesting look at a rigidly class-stratified bygone age that will no doubt provide the blueprint for the Britain of tomorrow.