Book Review: Courtesan detective Heloise Chancey explores the murky depths of Victorian London in M. J. Tjia’s She Be Damned

Heloise Chancey enjoys a life of luxury. From humble beginnings as a common prostitute, she has risen to become a sought-after courtesan, with a retinue of staff at her beautiful Mayfair home. But Heloise has a second occupation, one that would cause even more raised eyebrows. Armed with formidable detective skills and an inside knowledge of the dangerous Victorian streets, Heloise is called upon to assist in locating Eleanor Carter, a well-to-do young lady who has gone missing. But with Waterloo prostitutes showing up dead, their bodies mutilated and their sexual organs removed, Heloise must use every tool in her arsenal and work fast to find both Eleanor and the killer, before the two collide.

The debut novel from M. J. Tjia, She Be Damned, is the first in a new series featuring Victorian courtesan and detective Heloise Chancey. Chancey’s is a powerful voice, putting one in mind of another female detective from historical fiction, the 1920s set Miss Fisher. Tjia’s attention to historical detail brings Chancey – and all her other characters – to life, and it’s easy to imagine Heloise moving between two opposing spheres, from investigating the backstreets of London to attending the opera in all her finery.

But Chancey is not always cool, calm, and collected, and that’s a huge part of what makes her such a strong lead character. Despite everything she’s seen, whether from her days on the streets or from previous investigations, she remains in touch with her reality and with her emotions. Exchanges with the girls she knew in the brothels, street urchins that break her heart, the loyalty of her servants; Tjia has put much into making sure that Heloise is no cold blooded detective or disillusioned whore.

Tempering Chancey’s louche lifestyle and dark side hustle are short chapters from her Chinese maid, Amah Li Leen. Outspoken with her mistress, the reason behind Amah’s dedication and her uncanny ability to read Chancey like a book is revealed by the slow exploration of her backstory, and when Amah is falsely accused of the murders, Chancey is more fired up than ever to get to the bottom of things. Amah is every bit a lead as Chancey, and I can’t wait to know more!

Despite being the first in the series, She Be Damned does feel like one has been dropped into the middle of a story, and that definitely worked for me. Alluding to past investigations and with a rise to the (socially unacceptable) top, there’s still much to unpack when it comes to Heloise Chancey and Amah Li Leen. Having our heroines already established means She Be Damned can barrel merrily along, dealing with the important business of solving bloody murders and tracking down lost rich girls. Character is revealed along the way, and, even with the twists and turns of the case, it’s nice to have a few personal plot twists to look forward to!

If you like your heroines flamboyant, your servants mouthy, and your murders bloody, She Be Damned is the perfect book to get both your historical fiction fix and a head start on an excellent upcoming series.

She Be Damned is available now through Pantera Press