Genres: Historical Fiction, Crime
London, 1863: prostitutes in Waterloo area are turning up dead, their sexual organs mutilated and removed. When another girl goes missing, fears grow that the killer may have claimed their latest victim. The police are at a loss and so it falls to courtesan and professional detective Heloise Chancey to investigate. With the assistance of her trusty Chinese maid, Amah Li Leen, Heloise inches closer to the truth. But when Amah is implicated in the brutal plot, Heloise must reconsider who she can trust before the killer strikes again.
After reading The Essex Serpent and not enjoying it too much, I promised myself I’d never again buy books just because they look pretty – aaaand I bought She Be Damned a couple weeks later. I was going to give this book 3 stars because I actually didn’t dislike it too much, but once I started the review, I realized there was quite a lot I hadn’t liked vs. what I did enjoy. So I changed to 2.
She Be Damned follows Heloise Chancey, a courtesan in Victorian England who also works as a detective. She’s hired to find Eleanor, a seventeen-year-old girl who was kicked out by her father after getting pregnant while unmarried, and has disappeared on her way to a nunnery. With a serial murder on the loose targeting prostitutes, her father is worried about her safety.
The opening scene is really gory – I am not particularly sensitive to gory scenes, but this one made me wince. It felt to me that the book was unnecessarily explicit from time to time, describing scenes just for the effect of it.
Although I appreciated the feminist touch of the book, and the unflinching way in which the author talks about issues such as abortion, the dangers of being a woman, the hypocrisy of society, etc., I found that those topics were not explored much. I think the absurdity of those prejudices is supposed to make you angry – but if I’m reading fiction, I’d rather have such topics being a little more explored and put in context and exposed as cultural prejudice, instead of just serving as background. Getting angry at the absurdity of prejudices is something I can do with current news and history books. That is a personal opinion, however, so I didn’t discount more than half a star for it.
The mystery itself was kind of all over the place, and I honestly felt a bit disappointed with the ending. Heloise was not as methodical as I’d hoped, and her personality was a bit annoying. However, I did appreciate that Heloise was feminine while being smart and ambitious. There are quite a lot of tomboys in fantasy and historical fiction lately, and it’s getting quite overused, so I was happy to see that not happening in this book.
I did like the atmosphere of the book and M. J. Tjia’s writing. The plot was definitely interesting (albeit overused). While not a favorite, She Be Damned was entertaining.
Verdict: I was not too impressed by the book, so I will not recommend it. For Victorian mysteries, I think for now I’ll stick with Sherlock Holmes. Trigger warnings: mention of rape, gory murders, mutilation, racism, xenophobia, misogyny.