There have been plenty of Victorian novels: crime novels, Dickens novels and romance novels. Something about the grandeur and squalor of the 1800s just captures the imagination, I suppose- and She Be Damned, having been longlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger, certainly makes a good, more unusual, addition to their ranks.
M.J Tjia definitely does a great job in capturing the seedy underbelly of Victorian life without going into detail about what life was like for the upper echelons of society. This is very much a story about the underdogs: prostitutes, murders and street rats, and indeed the heroine herself is a famous courtesan who- for reasons perhaps best explained as ‘plot’- likes to help her friend Sir Thomas and do a little detecting on the sly. This time, somebody’s been carving up prostitutes, cutting off their sexual organs and leaving them to die. Who better for the job than Heloise Chancey?
The heroine, Heloise, carries the story. We’re given no introductions or backstory into her life; instead, we’re plunged into the middle of the action and left to pick up the pieces as we go along. Heloise is an entertaining protagonist: she’s mysterious (though we do learn about her past the story progresses), full of determination, resourceful and refreshingly unapologetic, both about her wealth and her profession. She also has an exotic maid, Amah Li Leen, in tow, to whom there is more than first appears. Who better to guide us through the decrepit world of Victorian London? The host of secondary characters, too, are fleshed out and don’t adhere to stereotypes (except maybe the brothel owner) in a way that drags you into the world that Tjia has created and makes you want to read more.
Indeed, the author’s portrayal of Victorian London is rich in detail, from the brothels to the police stations, sprinkled liberally with Victorian slang rich enough to make the book feel realistic and draw you in. Apart from anything else, it’s also a fascinating look at how prostitution was seen in Victorian times, from the rich and respected courtesans to the destitution of the lower classes; Heloise herself has clawed her way up from the bottom and the fact that she herself is a prostitute makes for a more nuanced portrayal of it than perhaps we’d see in other books.
The plot unfolds deftly- there’s never a dull moment- but I personally found that I was reading it more for the interesting characters, and to see what Heloise would do, rather for than the case itself. There are twists and turns, some of which seem rather haphazard, thrown in more to confuse the reader rather than to serve any purpose in the story- as do some of the subplots. Indeed, I only understood why the interludes inserted into the novel were there under the very end, so if you like a novel that keeps you guessing then this is for you.
Overall, though, She Be Damned is an interesting take on the detective novel with a modern and resourceful heroine at the helm, who takes us into the grimy and exciting world of Victorian London. Almost as educational as it is engaging, it’s clear that the author has poured their heart into this, and as a fun read it’s perfect for any fan of historical fiction.
Book cover taken from Goodreads.