A crime-scene photographer in Victorian London is drawn into the notorious case of the Sleeping Beauty.
A foggy evening finds narrator Sarah Bain (The Hangman’s Secret, 2019, etc.), along with her friend and business partner, Lord Hugh Staunton, and her assistant, young Mick O’Reilly, a former street urchin, in Shadwell prowling the dangerous banks of the Thames, looking for sensational images to sell to the Daily World. And the group makes a sensational find: a naked female body looking like a mermaid who’s washed ashore. Even while they argue about how to proceed, they realize that the corpse is actually alive. Sarah sets out to discover the identity of the mystery woman, who’s soon dubbed Sleeping Beauty. Hugh, meanwhile, struggles in his closeted romance with aristocratic Tristan Mariner, who’s unable to deal with the “sinful” nature of their relationship. Sarah gets able assistance from her fiance, DS Barrett. As the Daily World milks the story of Sleeping Beauty, who remains in a coma, people come out of the woodwork to claim her as a beloved relative. Dapper, condescending Belgian August Legrand claims she’s his wife, Jenny; prim widow Mrs. Oliphant thinks she’s her stepdaughter, Peggy; and eerily composed waif Venetia Napier believes the Sleeping Beauty is her mother. An additional burden comes in the person of Sarah’s sister, Sally, who insists that they work to remove the cloud over their father, who disappeared after being implicated in a high-profile murder. Sarah goes to extremes to solve the case and protect her friends.
Strong in character and plot, Rowland’s fourth Victorian mystery consistently appeals even when it veers into a motley muddle.