Coronation hears of the murders before she even reaches the slave port of Bristol – six boys found with their throats slit. Horrified, she questions the locals’ readiness to blame the killings on Red John, a travelling man few have actually seen. Coronation yearns to know more about the mystery. But first she has to outsmart the bawds, thieves and rakes who prey on young girls like her: fresh from the countryside and desperate for work.
When the murderer strikes shockingly close to Coronation, she schemes, eavesdrops and spies on all around her until the shameful truth is out.
Thank you to Kat Armstrong and Hookline Books for the advance copy for honest review.
It’s not often that I jump on the new release bandwagon and try a book as soon as it is released, but I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Kat Armstrong’s new historical mystery novel A Pair of Sharp Eyes, released in early September. I’m a sucker for both mystery and history (hey, I’m a poet…), and here we have a historical mystery that weaves together a good whodunnit plot with a capable investigation of social mores in early 18th century England.
Armstrong’s book is a strong debut. Centred around a young woman, Corrie, who is thrust into a world of confusing social hierarchies, racial and anti-semitic prejudice and a side serving of throat-slitting in the bustling port of Bristol, Armstrong manages to create an intriguing narrative that keeps us searching for the truth, subverts some of our expectations, and gives us a bit of a history lesson along the way.
My first observation of the novel is that both the writing and the historical scene-setting are very accomplished and smooth: Armstrong knows her historical period well, and knows how to describe it effectively. This comes as no surprise – Armstrong is an English lecturer in 18th century fiction with an MA in creative writing – but it does nonetheless make the book very compelling to read. Effectively capturing the essence of the city within the thorough description of sights and sounds, Armstrong manages to draw us into the early 18th-century city with ease. The language is easy to follow but certainly not conventional or boring. In terms of Armstrong’s abilities as an author, I would definitely be happy to read more from her.
Coronation – or Corrie – is an interesting character. As she is supposed to be fifteen, it wolud be easy to fall into the trap of the slightly bratty teenage protagonist at war with the world, or as sometimes seen in mysteries with child protagonists such as Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series, write the protagonist with such a childish view on the world that it can become tricky to extract any greater sense of meaning or context beyond the charm of the narrative. Armstrong just about manages to find a balance between childish naivete and desire to help anyone and anything, and an interest enough in cultural and social issues to talk about them to an extent that appeals to the reader without being too much of a hard-hitting social history lesson. Corrie is aware (but rarely too aware to be unrealistic), plucky enough to drive forward the plot, and at times flawed enough to be interesting reading. Armstrong also writes a varied supporting cast (and set of potential villains!) from snobby aristocats to shunned wives, to loud strong women and supportive social outcasts. We have a cross-section of society, contrasting rich and poor, white and black, male and female, old and young, that all help bolster the plot and work to examine each other and our own knowledge of the period.
The novel is a little bit of a slow starter. The opening few chapter, including a carriage stop in Bath, make perfect sense come the end of the book, which (without spoiling anything) does round off in a nice cyclical manner. However, at the time, the first handful of chapters before Corrie reaches Bristol and as she begins to establish her life there seem a little bit out of place within the pitch of the book. A part of me wonders if this is solely to do with the marketing: the blurb places the murders at the heart of the story, and while we do know of the circumstances right from the start, it actually takes a while to build up to a ‘whodunnit’ narrative, with the first third or so of the book centered more around setting up the social-historical elements needed for the story to function later, contextualising Corrie and her fellow characters within a rigid social set-up. This worked fine for me (history student and all) but I think that this should shift the pitch of the book away from just ‘murder mystery’ towards ‘historical murder mystery’, with greater emphasis being placed on the historical element of the narrative – I find that part just as interesting as the murders! If you’re a big murder mystery fan then you may find it takes a little while to get to the jist of the story.
Overall, though, the ending is satisfying for a murder narrative: not too obvious to have carved out everything by chapter three, nor too random or illogical to not be able to trace the events back afterwards. It’s not the most surprising ending in the murder mystery world, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. There is also a sense of development for Corrie by the end, which is always good to see. There is definitely room left over within the genre and the setting should Armstrong decide to do more with it, however.
On that note, I would like to see more work in a similar vein from Armstrong. A Pair of Sharp Eyes was definitely good, but I think Armstrong has it in her to go further. With a little bit of a sharpening on pace, and utilising more of her knowledge of British (in particular 18th century city) history, I think Armstrong has a wealth of opportunities to write more historical murder mysteries. And I would definitely pick up another.
You can order this book through Waterstones (UK) here.
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