Set in London in 1912, Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel, “The Hourglass Factory,” is authentic historical fiction and a gripping whodunit with murder at its core. In a prologue, Ribchester depicts a trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, flying down from the hidden rafters of the Royal Albert Hall with a suffragette banner clenched in her teeth. Prime Minister Asquith is speaking, which makes the feat all the more daring.
The suffragettes arranged Ebony’s hazardous performance for publicity purposes. But fate dashed their hopes: The Titanic sank the same day, eclipsing all other news stories.
After her publicity stunt, Ebony mysteriously disappears. The novel proper begins some six months later. We learn that in the past Ebony had been a dedicated suffragette, one of many confined in Holloway Prison and force-fed by stomach tube.
Indeed, fanatical women — and a few men — had become a formidable menace in London, and New Scotland Yard had appointed one of its best detectives, taciturn Inspector Primrose, to control the movement.
The book’s central character is Frankie George, a novice Fleet Street reporter hungry for “copy.” Dressed in a brown tweed suit, she races by bicycle through the tangled London streets in pursuit of a story. Her assignment to cover the perplexing disappearance of Ebony leads her to the Hourglass, a wittily but accurately named corset shop in Bond Street. While Frankie searches for Ebony, the body of a “showgirl,” with throat slashed, turns up on the Tottenham Court Road. Is it Ebony?
There is no question, however, that the body sprawled on the floor of the Hourglass shop belongs to its proprietor, Mr. Smythe:
“Across his legs a rack of peach corsets had spilled to the ground, framing him with frilly patterns … He was wearing a black corset, shiny, with a trim of magpie feathers in black and white. … His flesh had swelled outside the corset, making him look even more freakishly minuscule at the waist.”
While “The Hourglass Factory” is an enjoyable and diverting narrative, it requires concentration because of its countless characters and plot threads. And containing as it does frequent implausible coincidences, the novel also requires readers to occasionally suspend disbelief.
Ribchester’s epilogue relates a real-life tragedy from the annals of suffragette history, one that occurred at a royal horse race in Surrey. A militant woman, intent on winning over King Edward and the British public to the cause, was killed when she ran onto the racetrack to attach a “Votes for Women” sash to the bridle of a galloping horse.
Katherine Bailey reviews books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Bloomington. Visit her at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.
The Hourglass Factory
By: Lucy Ribchester.
Publisher: Pegasus Crime, 504 pages, $25.95.