Jack Stevens discovers the bodies of two women, Philomena Blackstaff and Mary Walsh, tied together and hung by their ankles in a position resembling the symbol for treachery as depicted on tarot cards. Though retired and now wealthy, Stevens is an ex-sheriff and involves himself in the subsequent investigation.
As a result of Jack ‘stealing’ Philomena’s diary and his association with the Pinkerton detective agency, it is discovered that Mary Walsh worked undercover for the Pinkertons, investigating the Knights of Labour (the fastest growing workers’ rights movements in America of the late 1800’s). The women had been working together, tracing the man who was selling guns and dynamite to the more extremest factions of the workers movement. This led them to Ruby’s, a secret ‘nightclub for deviants’, where Stevens and Inspector O’Leary believe the pair fell foul of the man they were looking for, gang leader Joseph Mannheim.
With the May 4th Haymarket riots and bombings looming, Stevens must uncover the truth about The Hanging Women before it’s too late.
What I Thought:
I find American history fascinating. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of it, it takes some spirit to impose yourselves and your values on a whole continent, seemingly without care. This bluff, pioneer attitude is perfectly encapsulated in John Mead’s protagonist, Jack Stevens.
In The Hanging Women, Stevens is a wealthy, older gentleman, but one who has lived an active life as a sheriff in the West and continues to apply the values of that life to his current circumstances. With grown children, Stevens seems to live much of his life simply to prevent boredom – including becoming involved in a police investigation after the discovery of the titular dead women.
John Mead paints a detailed picture of 19th Century Chicago, removing much of the rose-coloured tint that that period evokes and showing us a gritty, faction-led city that is, in many ways, struggling to find an identity. Politics, crime, sex and gangs mix to show that many of the things affecting our society today are age old!
I really enjoyed the historical details in the book and I don’t think I’ve read anything with this particular setting before – there are many books dealing with the Old West, but we often forget that by the late 1880s, the great cities of the US were very firmly established. There has obviously been a great deal of research done on this book, but it is integrated well into the fictional narrative – if you read a lot of historical fiction you will appreciate that this is a tricky skill for a writer.
Overall, this book is excellent. It’s paced very well, building slowly as the mystery about the murdered women is unfolded, before exploding into intense action as all is revealed and all the loose threads are pulled together. This may indicate that Jack Stevens’ story is at an end, but I would certainly be happy to read more about him in future.
This post is part of a blog tour for The Hanging Women so do check out some of the fantastic blogs below for their take on this title.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.