Death wore a Diadem

Reviewed by andy smart

Death wore a diadem is something of an oddity; a lesbian detective novel set in 19th century Scotland. It works very well, but somehow left me wanting more.

The plot centres around the theft of the Grecian Diadem bought by the Empress of the French to Edinburgh and stolen during her visit to a school for the daughters of the gentry. A crime investigated by Christabel and her lover Eleanor. The author knows her stuff when it comes to creating a picture of the city and the period, and weaves historical fiction with real events culled from the media of the day with skill. You wander the damp streets and visit primitive hospitals and feel you are there.

She gives you a wide cast of characters, canny Scots coppers, repressed Calvinist teachers, air-headed young girls who, were they to be alive to day would certainly speak in fluent ‘valley girl’ and be termed ‘mall rats’ . To top off this list we have the headstrong, wilful and thoroughly delightful Christabel MacKenzie, who has fallen wildly in love with young teacher and aspiring medic Eleanor. They are a great couple, and ought to be the stuff of lesbian detective legend. The author obviously loves them to bits. So its therefore surprising that, at the end of the book, they seem to have done so little and so little about them is concluded; its almost as though there was going to be a sequel which didn’t happen. Does Eleanor go to America to study medicine? Does Christabel do something interesting in later life? Do they stay together or find somebody new? I wanted to know more about them. The other opportunity which I felt was missed was the exploration of what it was like to be a lesbian daughter of the gentry. Somehow, while you do see Christabel and Eleanor going about their lives, exploring their relationship, and having sex - you never feel informed about the issues and challenges they would have faced; the pressure to marry, social attitudes (remember Queen Victoria refused to believe that lesbians existed), etc.

This is not to say that this isn’t a very readable and enjoyable book, it is both. I also suspect that you’ll find Christabel great fun (a teenage girl heroine you almost wish you were). It’s probably out of print now, but if you see a second hand copy, treat yourself.

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