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by Alex Reeve
Felony & Mayhem Press, June 2019
312 pages
ISBN: 1631941852

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Leo Stanhope is a young man living in London sometime in the latter half of the 19th century, working as a surgeon's assistant in a hospital morgue, and hopelessly in love with a young woman named Maria. Whereas Leo's job might seem a bit unusual, the rest of his biography would appear rather ordinary; it is anything but. Maria, his love, is also employed - she is a prostitute living in a local brothel on Half Moon Street. Leo met her because he must patronize prostitutes in order to conceal his deep secret. Leo is the daughter of a clergyman and was christened Charlotte at birth. Leo knew from an early age that he was really male and desperately needed to live as a man, which caused him to leave home as soon as possible and never return.

The house in which Maria works is one that caters to a variety of sexual interests and prides itself on keeping the secrets of its clientele. Leo's is one that could land him in jail or a madhouse, subject to horrifying "treatments" to cure his condition. At worst, he fears, he might wind up on the gallows.

This latter terror becomes more immediate when he is briefly jailed following Maria's murder, when he has the double fear of being unjustly accused and inadvertently exposed if he is thoroughly searched while in custody. But fate intervenes to free him and he sets off on a course to discover who killed Maria and why. It is a pursuit that will threaten everything about him - his secret, his livelihood, his life itself.

Leo is a romantic and desperate to discover not only who killed his sweetheart, but also to assure himself that she truly loved him in return. It is a difficult quest and one that only partially succeeds, but one that engages the reader's sympathies for Leo and his situation.

HALF MOON STREET is set in a period when gender non-conformity was far from unknown but despised and wholly misunderstood. In fiction set in England in the Victorian age, it has generally been overlooked. Famous incidences of cross-dressing women, like James Barry (née Margaret Ann Bulkley), who became a physician and rose to the rank of Inspector General of military hospitals in the British Army, have more often been attributed to professional ambition than personal gender reassignment, as it was impossible for a woman to train as a doctor in Britain at the time.

Alex Reeve is an academic interested in what might be called neo-Victorian fiction and observed that questions of transgender were singularly absent from the genre. He decided to remedy the oversight, though, as someone who is not himself trans, he admits that he may not have the right to assume the persona of one who is. On the whole, his performance seems both convincing and sympathetic, especially when he details the difficulties Leo experiences in trying his best to present himself as a convincing male at a time when hormonal and surgical interventions were unavailable. Additionally, he places Leo in the context of a puzzling mystery peopled with characters who are almost all complex and interesting in themselves.

HALF MOON STREET (published last year in Britain as THE HOUSE ON HALF MOON STREET) is the first in a series featuring Leo Stanhope and a promising debut it is. Reeve is to be congratulated for broadening the scope of the neo-Victorian mystery to embrace characters who have been largely excluded from the genre, thus enriching our view of the period itself.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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