Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder: A Novel
“Best of all, Marion Lane responds to deadly threat with creative assessment, and growth in both expertise and self-esteem, so the promised ongoing series featuring this maturing sleuth has great possibilities . . .”
“Steampunk” brings us marvelous attire and decorations, but few crime novels. So this debut mystery from T. A. Willberg is a delicious surprise, full of inventive espionage devices, oddly purposed gadgets and clockwork, and a seriously underground London setting complete with crypts and tunnels featuring creepily active wall locations.
Best of all is the protagonist, Marion Lane, a first-year “Inquirer” in training at Miss Brickett’s. She’s a young woman of unexpected courage and enterprise, born from a harsh knowledge of urban poverty. She also forms strong friendships—and she’ll need each one of them as she struggles to take apart a clever murder accusation against one of her colleagues, without losing either her life or her job (which might be equivalent).
For instance, her framed colleague mysteriously sets her up with a special camera viewing a secret meeting, where the death in question—of a Border Guard named Michelle—has just been pinned on the very kind Frank, who has watched over Marion since her mother’s death exposed her to hard times. It’s clear Michelle tackled too much in her strange role of patrolling the edge of Miss Brickett’s, where the wildlands of tunnels encroach:
“’The position was redundant,’ Gillroth said. ‘But she like it. It gave her a sense of purpose, I suppose.’
‘Purpose?’ Nancy seethed. ‘She’s dead because of it . . . She was afraid, Henry. Before she died, she came to me.’
Gillroth shifted on his walking stick. ‘And did she say why she was afraid?’
Nancy dropped her voice to barely more than a whisper. ‘She feared someone would find it. That’s why she wanted extra protection, and why I sent Rupert’s snake into the tunnels.’”
Armed with hints from this cryptic meeting of the power brokers of her underground employer—a firm designed to track down criminals that the London police can’t nail—Marion begins a search for a missing map that may reveal the deeper secrets of her group, and its more frightening political purpose.
Willberg’s narrative is fast paced, with abundant twists and risks. Embedding sabotage and terrorism into this alternate version of the 1950s, she also hints at the possibility that alchemists knew some terrible formulations, and she manipulates the boundaries of class and education with a sure hand among her characters.
Marion Lane offers echoes of alternate pasts and futures, as in Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser. Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is longer and grimmer—so Willberg has by contrast created a compact and satisfying crime novel rooted in a protagonist who’s both naive and stubborn, making it much easier for readers to self-identify with the perils Marion faces. A highly satisfying final action scene ramps up the tension in maneuvers that make the book a true page-turner, while not actually insisting that readers check the locks on their own doors, or the motives of their own colleagues.
Best of all, faced with deadly threat, Marion Lane responds consistently with creative assessment, and growth in both expertise and self-esteem. That means that the promised ongoing series featuring this maturing sleuth has great possibilities for intrigue and entertainment.