In this historical mystery, an intersex detective attempts to save her unrequited love from execution.
Canada, 1868. Alex O’Shea really wants to be a detective, but instead works as a journalist and novelist, authoring mysteries to satisfy his crime-solving urges. While on assignment in Ottawa, he encounters a woman dressed in black who seems not to know where she is despite having lived all her life in the town. Mary Baker is kept as a veritable prisoner in her house by her own relatives, and the smitten Alex feels compelled to discover more about her. Eliza Malkins works as a printer for a Kingston newspaper, where her male coworkers ridicule her large size and resent her for doing “a job that rightfully belonged to a man.” She has feelings for Alex but fears to act on them due to her secret: She has both male and female sexual organs. When the death of her mother finally allows her the opportunity to try something new, Eliza decides to live as a man named Timothy Fairlight. As Tim, she aids Alex in his ever-more-obsessive investigation into the lives of the Bakers until, in an ironic twist of events, Alex becomes the suspect in a murder. Now Eliza—or rather, Tim—must assume the role of sleuth to prove Alex’s innocence. Smith’s (Deep Bright, 2013) prose is delightfully ominous, creating a gothic atmosphere that adeptly recalls the novel’s Victorian setting: “The street was deserted. The tall houses seemed to be leaning over to conspire with each other. He stepped in horse manure and used a pocket handkerchief to wipe it off. He risked walking under a streetlight to read his pocket watch, 11:58.” The identity-shifting Eliza makes for an intriguing hero with desires that are simultaneously familiar and complex. While the other characters mostly hew closely to their archetypes, the story is satisfying in the heightened way of a good whodunit. In the author’s capable hands, Ottawa and Kingston have never seemed so mysterious.
A moody gothic tale that deftly explores gender fluidity in a genre setting.