Review: The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
All Kinds of Corset-Related Deaths
Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel The Hourglass Factory is an action-packed murder-mystery that romps through 1912 Edwardian London: from Tarot to tight-lacing, suffragettes to circus acts. Onto the scene steps Frankie, an intrepid independent woman in tweed trousers, determined to make her living as a journalist. When she is sent to interview a trapeze artist, she discovers a much bigger story and adventure ensues.
A surprising medley of tones emerges as Ribchester engages with this fascinating historical milieu. The Suffragettes are treated with the rigour and seriousness that they deserve – both window-smashing and force-feeding are brought back to life in unflinching detail. Other scenes offer surprisingly moving moments, such as that of suffragettes being sentenced while their supporters heckle the judge with cries of “shame”. By way of contrast, the sub-plot concerning Inspector Primrose of the suffragette squad presents a more nuanced perspective as he wrestles the inner conflict of his duty to uphold the law and pressure from his hideously sexist colleagues and superiors. His instinct for justice makes him baulk at the way he sees women being treated and his character explores a rarely-voiced ambivalence in historical fiction of this era.
Such realistic re-enactments of the suffragette debate are counterbalanced by the book’s more delightfully macabre elements. In one memorable scene Frankie visits a morgue with jars of pickled body parts on display. Quizzing the mortician for leads Frankie is told that, “You get all kinds of corset-related deaths”. This generous helping of gruesome detail adds darker undertones to a rollicking plot in which Frankie and friends have to piece together clues, escape sticky situations, and foil villains. The narrative also has its fair share of tongue-in-cheek moments, such as the hilariously suggestive pink and toothless snake that performs with exotic-dancer Milly.
Milly, who has left a life of upper-class privilege to make her living as an exotic dancer, is typical of the clearly-drawn, larger-than-life characters of The Hourglass. There’s also Twinkle, a melodramatic retired courtesan, and the enigmatic Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist and suffragette. Further back-stories are hinted at and would be welcomed, especially Frankie’s past. The mysteries of the plot unfold, clue by clue, but Frankie remains opaque, apart from a few teasing references to her childhood. What drove her to become a cross-dressing lady journalist? I wanted to find that out just as much as I wanted to find out who dunnit.
The only other minor distraction is the few sticky bits of dialogue and description. Sometimes it’s not clear who’s saying what or why they’re saying it, and some of the more crowded scenes are described in a disjointed way that doesn’t convey a cohesive impression. However, overall, the story was strong enough to carry me through these minor distractions and made for an enjoyable read, especially the playful Calvin Harris reference, if you spot it.
The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Simon & Schuster, RRP £7.99, 504 pp