Mysteries and secrets in Victorian England

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE LIBRARY THIEF. By Kuchenga Shenje. Hanover Square Press. 358 pages. $29.99.

The Library Thief is a remarkable, entertaining and ambitious debut historical mystery novel by Kuchenga Shenje, a writer, journalist and speaker who lives in Manchester, England.

It’s the story of Florence Granger, who grew up a lonely, motherless child after her father brought her home from Jamaica. Florence spent a great deal of her childhood quietly working in the shop of her father, a master bookbinder, who taught her his trade.  Her love of books, first the feel of the cloth they used when repairing them, and later the words, stories and ideas between the covers, filled some of the emptiness in her heart.

Her father gave her a home, but he had little to give in the way of love. When he came upon Florence and a young man – an anarchist – engaged in an unacceptable act in late Victorian England, he threw her out.

But Florence is feisty and resourceful, and all those books she’d read had given her ideas.  She intercepts a letter from one of her father’s customers, Lord Francis Belfield of Rose Hall, asking her father to repair his extensive, valuable, yet sadly neglected book collection. The estate has fallen on hard times, and Lord Belfield is preparing to sell much of his library.

Florence manages to make the hours-long journey to his manor on her own. There, she tells a doubtful Lord Belfield that her father’s eyesight is failing and he sent her to do the work in his stead.

Still wary, Lord Belfield allows her to enter his prized library.

As Florence gets to know the members of the depleted household – nearly all the one-time servants are gone – she also begins to pick up on a darker web of secrets and undercurrents. She becomes particularly interested in learning the truth about the recent death of Lord Belfield’s wife, Lady Persephone, who had gone out alone at night and was found dead in the river the next day.

Lady Persephone’s death is the mystery that drives the book. Shenje does an admirable job of giving enough clues to keep us intrigued.

As the story progresses, though, it also becomes much more than the mystery. Shenje’s characters and stories shine a light on the Victorian era’s rigid divisions of sex, race and class – and related prohibitions on women, those who today are called “gay” or “trans,” and people who weren’t white Anglo-Saxons. The hypocrisy of the white males and upper classes is also clearly portrayed.

Florence is better read than most Victorian women, but she’s also young, inexperienced and lonely. Having grown up with a harsh, withdrawn father and no mother left her unprepared for some of the realities of the world into which she has intruded. Part of the story becomes her search for her true identity, as well as the lengths she must go to in order to have any hope for the future.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that Shenje may have gone overboard with the number of her characters in this restricted setting who deviate from those Victorian norms, whether it be unacceptable sexuality or people of color passing as white. At times, it begins to feel as though she were trying to pack too much into one novel. She’s done well with this one; let’s hope there are many more to come.

Back to the mystery: The twists and turns lead to a denouement that’s both surprising and utterly believable.

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