It is September 1905 and Sofia Logan’s husband Tom is dying. Desperate, she applies to his employer, Emmett Vinsant for money to pay for a doctor. Tom dies but Vinsant does not forget the debt; Sofia owes him and in payment he wants such a little thing, simply for her to kill a man. It shouldn’t be too difficult, after all, she’s done it before.
I have really enjoyed all Helen Fields detective fiction set in modern day Edinburgh and featuring DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach, so even though historical fiction is not really my thing, when I discovered that she was publishing a thriller set in the early 20th century I decided to step out of my comfort zone and read it. And I’m glad that I did. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Edinburgh books, and I don’t think it is quite as well plotted, but nevertheless it’s a very good read.
Sofia is by heritage a Romani, but following an incident that is horrifically spelt out in the early chapters, she leaves her family and eventually ends up in London married to Tom and with two small children, Isaac and Sadie. When Tom dies, desperate for employment to enable such basics as paying her rent and feeding her children, Sofia finds herself working for Emmett Vinsant in his gaming houses, exploiting her talent for counting cards in order to identify those who set out to cheat her employer. Counting cards is a skill that Sofia has perfected as a small child, but with that talent comes what can often be a fatal addiction: an addiction to gambling itself. With Tom bringing in good money there has been no temptation for Sofia to give way to her desire for the thrill of the game, but once she finds herself back in a gambling environment she is very soon caught up in that fatal longing for just one more win. Staking her wages, current and forthcoming, she sets out to put her talents to use on her own behalf but, like almost every other compulsive gambler, she soon discovers that ultimately the odds are always against her. Further in debt, and with the threat of her children being taken from her, she has little choice but to put that other skill learnt as a child, her ability to kill with no remorse, to her employer’s use.
Emmett Vinsant is a man with no conscience and no patience for failure. His wealth is invested in several other enterprises as well as his gaming houses, including a number of factories making materials for the ever expanding railways. He is, however, a man of little social standing, something he has done his best to rectify through his loveless marriage to Beatrice. Now, he and his wife go their separate ways. There are no children to bind the marriage and Beatrice has become involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union, the more militant branch of the growing suffrage movement. Vinsant’s business practices and his desire for both power and wealth have made him many enemies and when such enemies become too troublesome he turns to Sofia to rid him of their pestilence.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Sofia, gambling addiction runs in my family and, while some have been able to keep it under control, others have ruined not only their own lives but also the lives of their spouses, their children and their children’s children. I never gamble under any circumstances, because I know that if I once started I wouldn’t be able to stop. However, I am not in a financial situation where I need to gamble; the same is not true of Sofia. One of the themes that Fields is exploring in this book is the telling difference between those women who are in a comfortable enough situation to be able to protest their circumstances under the banner of the suffrage movement and those who must fight for every penny simply to stay alive.
How [could they] be obsessed with the right to vote when most women were struggling to put bread on the table and keep their children safe from illness and exploitation.
It is not, however, simply gambling to which Sofia finds herself addicted. We hear talk of the addictive personality and that describes Sofia precisely. Having killed on a number of occasions, she finds herself longing for the adrenaline rush that such action brings.
Reliving the killings in her imagination became habitual and dispelled the domestic monotony. In the beginning that was enough. The memories did not remain faithful to her though, and day by day they weakened, leaving herself less fulfilled, craving a greater sense of self-worth, a more vital experience.
It is almost as if Fields has set out to explore the mind of a serial killer and invite her readers to understand how such a psyche can come about; something that would perhaps be difficult to do in her more usual modern day setting. Eventually, Sofia is asked to commit a murder at which she finds herself wanting to draw the line, but how does she square her conscience if she is to preserve her own life and those of her children?
If the book has a weakness, it is the outcome of this last murder and the way in which the story ends. Having created, as Sofia herself recognises, a monster, it is difficult for Fields to then ask readers to accept quite such a neat redemption as comes about. Other than that, however, this was an interesting and satisfying read.
With thanks to Wailing Banshee Ltd and NetGalley for a review copy.