Mary Thomason, a student at the Slade in London, has been missing. Before she disappeared into thin air she’d written a letter to a known American writer and lawman called Denton, explaining that she feared somebody wanted to hurt her. However Denton got the letter only after two months – he’s been away and Mary’s missile has been hidden behind a picture frame; it was sent to him only after it was found by the new owner of that painting. Mary was still missing at that time and intrigued Denton soon found out nobody was really interested in looking for her. Perhaps she went abroad. Perhaps she’s been visiting her family. Maybe she had an accident. Maybe she got eaten. Why did she hide the note instead of sending it, though? Why didn’t she go to the police?
Although Denton is anxious to find the girl and help her somehow his own life is hardly problem-free. He has a book to finish. A certain Albert Cosgrove has become so enamored of his books that he sends many notes begging to meet Denton and asking for signed copies. It soon becomes clear that Cosgrove’s obsession has become dangerous; the man begins to threaten those that Denton cares for as well. One day the Bethnal Green rooms rented by his love interest, Janet Striker, are crudely savaged by Cosgrove, with all her property destroyed and a word/name ‘Astoreth’ written in red on the walls. Are these two facts connected somehow? What can be done, especially that London police is rather inefficient?
The search for answers leads Denton into the heart of Bohemian London—the world of artists and their models, of brilliance and depravity, where the border between genius and madness is hard to discern but easy to cross.
The Bohemian Girl by Kenneth Cameron is the second part of a series about Denton, an American ex-patriot, former sheriff, and a writer, who finds himself embroiled against his better judgment in mysterious circumstances. I discovered that much right in the middle of the book and I thought: ‘yes I jumped again right in the middle of a story – soon enough people will call me a frog or a toad’ ;p. Was the jump successful, though? I am pleased to say it was.
The book was a delight to read. It was narrated in a fluent way, neither too slow nor too fast, as it dealt with several topics close to my heart like art (how I would love to be a Slade girl!), drawing techniques and, of course, mysterious London at the turn of the centuries (meaning here of course 19th and 20th century). Cameron managed to set the period without resorting to such crude tools as forced cockney accents or Dickensian descriptions of dirt, poverty and squalor. All the characters were finely drawn and they were as real-life as you could wish. Of course it helped that Janet, as a former prostitute, never shunned any subject, be it a murder, a headless corpse or the way Victorian women dealt with menses. It was also an almost psychological tale about the difference between love, sex and perversion. The crime mystery was interesting and original, although not exactly difficult to solve. Overall I had difficulties to put down this one – something I haven’t experienced for a long time. Add to that a sense of humour… I would like to quote here just one dialogue between Denton and Janet:
“They stopped at a window where a portrait of the king was displayed on a carved easel and surrounded with velour draperies. She said, ‘A fairly common type in a whorehouse.’
‘Fat men with stinking cigar breath and plenty of money to pay people to do things that humiliate them.’
‘You don’t have respect for your new sovereign?’
Finally let me also add one thing.American writers seem to love setting their historical novels in Britain or France, anywhere other than home, because it means they don’t have to be so thorough in their research. Who would notice such trivial mistakes as the wrong dress for a given period or out-of-period phrase uttered by a duke or an earl? A result? In those novels you can find shocking howlers which might make you very unwilling to read another book labeled as ‘historical fiction’ again. Mr. Cameron dealt with that problem in a very intelligent manner – he chose a ‘rough’ American who, somehow, managed to become a popular and famous writer of ‘dark’ novels; as such he was, like most readers, at sea among the polite society of 1901 Britain, not knowing e.g. why a duke’s sister is called a ‘lady’ even if she’s married a commoner. It made me discover some intricacies of the Victorian era without meeting those ugly infodumps at every corner.
The Bohemian Girl was a rather convoluted novel, but one which had appeal. I liked Denton, I liked Janet and I got drawn by the mystery pretty soon. It was also a pleasure to read a historical novel, written by an American but set in the UK, which was not riddled with cultural or conversational errors the size of your average elephant or a hippo. I think I must read the third part now.
Pst, pst – the cover is very good as well!