Limelight by Emily Organ
How did an actress die twice?
I do love an Emily Organ book!
I stalk Emily - sorry - I mean I keep an eye out for Emily's new books as I have read every single one and never been disappointed. This is no exception. Moving to a new historical era following on from the Runaway Girl series that was set in the 1350s, Limelight is set in 1883 and yet again Organ shows off her talent for creating a convincing world and transporting the reader back in time.
What I also admire about Organ's writing is that even though I recognise her style and rich use of language, each novel does feel quite different. The tone and atmosphere of this book feels refreshing and new which is both an achievement a pleasing change after having lived with so many of Organ's characters throughout a whole trilogy. Limelight appears to be a stand alone novel - although who knows?!
Again, there is a slight change in genre too. So far Organ has written two very contemporary novels set in the modern day; The Last Day is perhaps more of a character driven story, The Outsider is a more popular fiction/ psychological thriller with the echoes of the fabulous Du Maurier's Rebecca hiding beneath some of the inspiration for the plot and The Runaway Girl Trilogy is an historical thriller series. I would describe Limelight as more of gentle crime read - it's not cosy crime as there are scenes of violence and some quite graphic moments, but it feels intriguing and a very satisfying mystery rather than a chilling or disturbing read.
I liked it. A lot.
The book opens in Highgate Cemetery with a policeman in pursuit of the sound of a gun shot which has disturbed the still night. Eerie. Dramatic. Excting!
"The night was moonless and now silent as PC Preston followed the path through the cemetery, holding his lantern out in front of him. The other hand was wrapped tightly around his revolver. 'Police!' he called out. 'Show yourself!' There was no response."
We then move on to meet our Detective James Blakely who is to investigate the murdered body discovered in the cemetery. He approaches Miss Penny Green, our protagonist, who is a journalist although not a news reporter on the daily paper following an article she wrote as she "believed that the wrong man had been hung" and as Blakely concurs, "time revealed that the wrong man was, indeed, hung." Therefore we are shown Penny to be a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind and is a driven and dedicated professional journalist in a time when it was not easy for women to be taken seriously or respected as equals.
However, Blakely continues.
"'Miss Green, it is most urgent that I speak with you. It is regarding the actress, Lizzie Dixie. She has been murdered.'
I came to an instant standstill. ......
'Lizzie Dixie? But that's impossible. She drowned. Years ago.'"
Ooohhhh, yes. Now you're interested aren't you?!
Miss Penny Green is a great character. Serious, sharp and perceptive. Single, intelligent and perhaps a little ahead of her time, but ultimately believable and likeable. I related to her immediately. Introducing her against her back story of having just lost her regular salary from the newspaper, because of her values and search for justice, means the reader is rooting for her from the start. She doesn't need, want or ask for our sympathy and is very independent but I respected her and wanted to know more about her. Her relationship with her sister which is revealed as the novel develops, shows us a softer side to Penny and how even though sometimes her job - or life choices - have separated her away from her friends, family and peer group, some of them secretly envy her confidence and drive.
"..[Eliza] often laughed at me for being a working woman and shunning family life, she had always taken a keen interest in what I did and I sensed that she sometimes dreamed of having a job like mine."
However, most of the time Organ gently reminds us of the social and historical context of the novel and that actually Penny is subjected to barbed remarks about age, family, marriage and respectability frequently. I loved the sly look at her "ink-stained fingers" which conveyed such "disapproval that I had a job" when Penny was at dinner. I also liked Penny's need for extra sherry when visiting a family with 13 (that's 13 folks!!!!) children who she attempted to endure! Organ juggles a great balance between making Penny independent and single without making her hard and cold. It's refreshing to read about a female protagonist who is content with their life, ambitious without being cut throat and single by choice rather than a traumatic back story of a broken heart or abuse!
Not that there isn't a love interest - but it is a slow burning relationship born out of mutual respect; not in the slightest bit twee, sentimental or reflecting any weakness or digression in Penny's character. It's well executed and welcomed by the reader!
As well as the relationship between Blakely and Penny there is also another male character with whom Penny has much involvement; journalist Edgar Fish. Fish is a competitor of Penny's and always quick to throw both physical and emotional obstacles in her way.
"'There are plentiful ladies' journals in need of writers, so I am sure it will be easy for you to find work. The grand ladies of Britain always require advice on which colour hat to wear and how to discipline their maids.'"
There's a great contrast between the developing closeness and understanding between Blakely and Penny and the tension between Fish and Penny.
What's also interesting about this murder investigation is Penny's previous relationship with Lizzie which allows us some insight into Lizzie's character and the potential to reveal hints, clues and information which enhance the tension and suspense surrounding the case. Lizzie is also a strong female character who again has struggled with the conventions of society versus her ambitions. She is also a good contrast to Penny's character.
"I have done things I am not proud of to get where I am today....."
"I would not have been able to refuse [Charles Burrell] he would never have let me. But that was just the start....... I liked to be desired. Being an actress made me desirable; I could dress up and look beautiful. So that's what I did, and I made lots of money from it."
And, as possibly with many actresses but definitely with most people, there is a hidden life, a buried secret or choices and decisions made which reveal another side to a character and make the circumstances more complicated. Maybe indeed there was much more to Lizzie's apparently glamorous and successful life than anyone really knew?
"One day people will realise who I really am. They will hate me."
I won't dwell any more on the plot for fear of spoilers but what worked well for me in this story was the use of gentle humour in places, usually relating to historical context. I particularly enjoyed some of the comments when the journalists were introduced to the typewriter:
"Just one letter at a time? This is rather laborious."
"But the letters aren't even in alphabetical order."
"Our hands are perfectly suited for writing. Why use a machine?"
And also meeting Mrs Henrietta Henderson of the Rational Dress Society as they discuss the merits and dangers of "divided skirts" to create more practical "baggy trousers"!
All in all, Organ is showing herself to be a very versatile writer who has a skill for creating engaging and interesting, three dimensional characters. I am really hopeful that Limelight will appeal to a new audience again and introduce even more people to her novels. It is a very rewarding and well written novel and I am already counting down the days until her next book!!
This is the perfect read for fans of Victorian history, stories with strong female protagonists and for people looking for a good murder mystery story.
Limelight will be published on 2nd March 2017.
I write historical mysteries and thrillers with strong female characters. THE RUNAWAY GIRL SERIES is a trilogy of thrillers set in 14th century London. The sights, smells and dangers of medieval life are combined with contemporary themes into a page-turning read.
2017 sees the publication of a series of Victorian mysteries featuring the Fleet Street reporter Penny Green. LIMELIGHT is the first book and set in late 19th century London. Penny Green must help Scotland Yard solve the mystery of an actress who appears to have died twice. It's a whodunnit which will keep you guessing until the very end.
I live in the south of England.
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