After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
Victorian London can always be relied on to provide the perfect setting for a crime novel: a vivid, pulsating, urban backdrop with its extremes of luxury and deprivation, peopled with characters whose greed, piety, malevolence, envy, kindness, desperation, give life to an endless skein of human narratives for our entertainment and education. Who can think of the 19th century metropolis other than through the prism of Conan Doyle and Dickens? And where does this leave would-be novelists seeking to make their own mark?
The answer, for Linda Stratman, like Philip Pullman (with Sally Lockhart) and Brian Thompson (Bella Wallis), is to plump for a female ‘detective’: a 19 year old chemist’s daughter living above the shop in genteel Bayswater. The Poisonous Seed is billed as ‘A Frances Doughty Mystery’, and is the first in a series that – based on this showing – will have much to recommend it.
Frances’ father, the pharmacist William Doughty, is shunned by his customers when local gentleman, Percival Garton, dies after drinking his medicine. Cool-headed and curious, Frances is convinced that his death was murder rather than due to any mistake of her father’s, and sets out to unravel the pieces of the victim’s seemingly perfect life. But her determination to seek the truth has unintended consequences, for not only does she uncover the unsavoury secrets of Garton’s connections, but also her own. In both cases the veneer of familial respectability is revealed as a thin covering over misdeeds of the past.
Every novelist needs her USP: Stratman’s is her intimate knowledge of both pharmacy (she is a former chemist’s dispenser) and true-life Victorian crime, about which she has written several non-fiction books. I predict that this new calling will win her many new readers and admirers.