*I received a free ARC of this book via Rachel’s Random Resources blog tour. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: A historical crime thriller set in 1886 Chicago; the power house of America, a sink of corruption and vice which is haunted by riots and gangland killings. A story of weak men and strong women.
Jack Stevens discovers the bodies of two women, Philomena Blackstaff and Mary Walsh, tied together and hung by their ankles in a position resembling the symbol for treachery as depicted on tarot cards. Though retired and now wealthy, Stevens is an ex-sheriff and involves himself in the subsequent investigation.
As a result of Jack `stealing’ Philomena’s diary and his association with the Pinkerton detective agency, it is discovered that Mary Walsh worked undercover for the Pinkertons, investigating the Knights of Labour (the fastest growing workers’ rights movements in America of the late 1800’s). The women had been working together, tracing the man who was selling guns and dynamite to the more extremest factions of the workers movement. This led them to Ruby’s, a secret `nightclub for deviants’, where Stevens and Inspector O’Leary believe the pair fell foul of the man they were looking for, gang leader Joseph Mannheim.
With the May 4th Haymarket riots and bombings looming, Stevens must uncover the truth about The Hanging Women before it’s too late.
The Hanging Women is a busy and involved crime thriller, with plenty of twists and a rich historical background.
I didn’t know much about the American labour disputes of the 1800’s. or the Pinkertons (other than a brief appearance in a Sherlock Holmes story), but this book inspired me to do some further research and really put the action into an authentic historical context.
Jack Stevens is a typical amateur detective in some ways: problems with alcohol and personal relationships; not officially attached to any law force but able to muscle in on their investigations anyway; so far so standard. However the little details: his recurring nightmares, his unusually accommodating relationship with his wife, his lack of clear motive for pursuing his investigation other than ‘because what they did was wrong’, all conspire to make him an interesting and sympathetic character in his own right.
The storyline is not a simple one. There are many characters and interweaving plotlines introduced, some relevant and some deliberately misleading, which can make the story difficult to follow at times. This actually lent an air of authenticity to events however, as real-life is seldom clear-cut, and investigators rarely have the luxury of focusing on one event at a time. There are, of course, the titular hanging women, but fast upon their heels come gang warfare, worker disputes and jewel robberies, keeping the main characters (and the reader) disoriented and blundering from clue to clue until the surprising final act.
One small point, not a criticism of the novel itself, but I did notice a number of word-swap errors which could have been avoided with further proof-reading / editing; for example, ‘sort’ instead of ‘sought’. These were a minor distraction, which was a shame, as the writing on a whole was very skillful and smooth.
I would definitely recommend this for anyone who likes their crime to be firmly rooted in history and complex in construction. The result here is a rewarding, thrilling story with some very memorable characters.
In the dusty grime of the floor he saw two sets of boot prints mingling with each other around where the bodies hung, though the larger sized prints were less frequent and had not approached so close. The larger set he traced back to Jack, sitting on a pile of debris off to the side where the smaller sized boots had not trod. The naked women, one black and the other white, had been hung upside down, using a double-block and tackle, suspended from a roof rafter. Their hands had been tied behind each others back as if embracing each other, the coloured woman’s right ankle tied to the other woman’s left: their free legs had been bent and tied so as to cross behind their respective knee. Had the pair been the right way up it would look as if they were pirouetting on tip-toe, clasping each other in some macabre dance.
– John Mead, The Hanging Women
The Hanging Women is available on Amazon right now!