The Secrets of Blythswood Square by Sara Sheridan – 20 Books of Summer 2024

The Secrets of Blythswood Square by the Scottish author Sara Sheridan is one of my 20 Books of Summer reads, and it was a really good one.

The book begins at Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1846. Rock House stands right at the base of the hill and it’s owned by David Octavius Hill, the pioneer in photography. A lot of the photography work is done by two young women, cousins Jessie and Ellory, with Ellory being very much the underdog. It’s a tough life. When a philanthropist makes it possible for Ellory  to set up on her own she immediately takes herself off to Glasgow where she plans to open up her own photography business. She has far more business sense than the stuffy Hill, and has more talent and flair for artistic composition. She’s determined to make a go of it.

Meanwhile in Glasgow Charlotte has just lost her father, a wealthy businessman, and is now alone in the world with only her father’s servants for company.  When she meets Ellory the two are drawn to each other, despite the difference in status. It turns out that Charlotte isn’t as well off as she had expected, there’s a mystery to what has happened to a large investment that her father had made, and according to his will she’ll have to share half of what money there is with whoever lives in Helensburgh House, wherever that may be. But it seems that there’s very little actual money available, Charlotte thinks she’ll have to sell her family home and get rid of the servants.

This book involves the infighting of the Church of Scotland factions which had split up into the Free Church – The Great Disruption – and the protests that went on when the one time slave Frederick Douglass was giving lectures in Scotland and elsewhere, and trying to shame the churches to hand back the money which they had been given by slave owners over the years, something that they never did.

Sara Sheridan weaves actual historic people into her fiction books, such as the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and her historical notes at the back of her books are not to be missed. I enjoyed this one just as much as the only other book by her that I’ve read, The Fair Botanists.

I must admit that when I read the title of this book I had assumed that the story would involve the notorious Victorian Madeleine Smith who lived there and was accused of poisoning her ‘gentleman friend’ so it was a nice surprise to discover that the storyline was completely different.

British Bulldog by Sara Sheridan

British Bulldog by Sara Sheridan was published in 2015 and it’s the third book in the Mirabelle Bevan series which is set in the early 1950s. In this one Mirabelle is told by a solicitor that she has been named in the will of a man that she barely knew. A Major Bradley, better known as Bulldog Bradley has just died and in his will he asks that Mirabelle tries to track down a wartime colleague of his. They had both been prisoners of war and had escaped together in 1944, but had been split up somehow and although Bradley had got back safely to Blighty his escape partner Philip Caine hadn’t. Mirabelle has been left 10,000 guineas in the will if she will take on the job of looking for Caine. That’s £10,000 plus 10,000 shillings, a huge amount of money, as you can imagine Major Bradley’s widow isn’t amused, she thinks the worst of Mirabelle.

Mirabelle sets off for Paris, as her mother was French she speaks the language fluently and knows the city well. It’s not long before she’s drawn into dangerous situations and discovers that Caine and Bradley had known her beloved Jack Duggan during the war. There’s a different enemy now with the Cold War gaining momentum and Mirabelle finds herself in the thick of it.

I think this one is my favourite of the series so far, the Paris setting was a nice change and it was good to be there without actually having to travel.

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

Previously I’ve read some of Sara Sheridan’s mysteries and enjoyed them so when I saw that she had written a book called The Fair Botanists with an Edinburgh setting, I requested it from the library.

The year is 1822 and Edinburgh is agog, King George IV is supposed to be visiting the city, the first visit from a Hanoverian king. Sir Walter Scott has the job of organising the whole thing and he’s not helped by not knowing exactly when or even if the visit will take place – such are the whims of royalty.

Meanwhile others are busy transporting mature trees and plants from where they have been growing in Leith Walk to their new home in what will be the new botanic gardens at what was the Inverleith estate. Inverleith House still has some of the family living in it. The elderly Clementina has recently been joined by Elizabeth, her nephew’s widow who is feeling lucky to have been taken in by her husband’s family as her husband left her poverty stricken. She’s a talented botanical artist so she’s very interested in all the planting that’s going on, particularly the rare Agave Americana which is due to flower soon.

In fact lots of people are interested in that plant, for various reasons, all determined to get a bit of it, but Bella is the most determined. She has befriended Elizabeth who is just about the only person in Edinburgh who doesn’t know what Bella’s profession is.

I did really enjoy this one but it’s not perfect. It should have been edited to expunge mention of ‘the elephant in the room’ as that’s a modern phrase, and I was really annoyed by the constant use of ‘quite the’ instead of ‘quite a’ by what seemed like every single character in the book, it’s just something that I dislike but dozens and dozens of uses of it by different characters drove me mad. Otherwise it’s entertaining and informative with interesting characters and situations both fictional and actual.

Brighton Belle and London Calling by Sara Sheridan

Brighton Belle cover

Brighton Belle by the Scottish author Sara Sheridan was published in 2012 and it’s the first in a series. The setting is Brighton in 1951.

Mirabelle Bevan had been in a hush hush job during World War 2 but she was desk bound so was never really in the thick of it. She’s now based in Brighton where she’s working with Ben McGuigan helping him to run his debt recovery agency, but Ben is ill with a bad cold so Mirabelle is left to cope on her own. When a client arrives asking for help to recover £400 from a woman he had loaned it to it leads to murder and Mirabelle finds herself using the skills that she had developed during the war. I really liked this one so although I wasn’t looking for another series to keep up with – I intend to do just that.

So next in the series is London Calling. I decided to request these books from the library quickly as they have a horrible habit of getting rid of books, particularly the earlier ones in a series – which is just madness.

The setting is mainly London in 1952 where a debutante has gone missing, last seen in a jazz club. It’s believed that Rose Bellamy Gore left the club with Lindon Claremont who is a young black saxophonist, so when she disappears it’s assumed that he has something to do with it. Lindon gets the train from London to Brighton to get help from his old family friend Vesta who has teamed up with Mirabelle in the debt recovery agency.

Mirabelle persuades Lindon to go back to London and hand himself in to the police, to help with the enquiries, which would be the sensible course of action – but maybe not for a black suspect.

There’s some use of the ‘n’ word in this one, and various other racist elements which I’m sure are very true to the atmosphere of the time, however they are always challenged by Mirabelle, I’m not sure how realistic that would have been, back in the day. Anyway, this was another enjoyable mystery. I really like the characters of Mirabelle and Vesta and the writing so I’ll continue with the series.