Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Taylor’s mysteries. I mostly enjoyed this one too, though I did encounter a problem for which I don’t have a solution.

Set in London in 1934, the book conjures up not so much the Jazz Age as the seedy miasma of Dickens’s stories. In the opening scene, Lydia Langstone abandons her upper-class life after a brutal encounter with her husband, taking little with her besides a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own and some jewelry that she had inherited.

The plot centers around Bleeding Heart Square, off a dank and ill-lit alley, where Lydia has taken refuge with her the father she has never known, in a house run by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Serridge. The house had been owned by a middle-aged spinster, Miss Penhow, excerpts of whose diary preface each chapter. Also haunting the square are a plainclothes policeman who is on a mission, a seamstress who knows more than she’s saying, a beadle at the Catholic church who stands too close to Lydia, and Rory Wentwood who is engaged to Miss Penhow’s niece, Fenella.

With our attention focused on the fate of the missing Miss Penhow, Taylor slips in a number of subplots, including one about the competing claims of the early Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists. The book is beautifully structured, moving between different characters and their stories, but always coming back to the square and Miss Penhow’s diary. Knowing that the plot is based on a real murder that the author heard about as a child adds an extra frisson of appeal.

My problem came with some of the characters, who did not behave as I expected them to. Of course, multi-dimensional characters are a good thing; nothing can kill a story faster than a character who is just a cliche. However, the behavior of some of the characters just didn’t seem to fit, making my suspension of disbelief begin to slip. For example, Lydia’s husband—rich, powerful, possessive, jealous, self-centered—does not try to force her back to his home, or have her committed as insane, or any of the other ways men controlled their wives in that time. He just leaves her in her father’s squalid flat. To mention other examples would be to give away too much of the plot, but these characters took me out of the story as I wondered why they felt so wrong. Of course, I could just be missing some obvious pointers that would have explained their behavior.

Dealing with a reader’s expectations about a character is a problem I’ve encountered in my own writing and one for which I don’t have a solution. It seems as though one ought to be able to lay enough clues for the reader to forestall those expectations, but I’m not quite sure how to do that. I’ll have to go back over what I’ve read and find a good example to study. Perhaps Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. He manages to make stock characters both unusual and utterly believable.

Overall, the book is still a good read and has given me a some things to ponder.

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