Taking as its premise the idea that the Brontë sisters embarked on brief careers as crime-fighting ‘detectors’ in 1845, the period between Charlotte and Emily returning home from Brussels and the three sisters becoming published authors a year later, this novel offers us a delicious new version of the famous siblings, superbly reimagined by Bella Ellis (the suitably Bronte-esque pseudonym of Rowan Coleman) .
Ellis’s trick has been to build on what we know already about the Brontës, and then slide in a new and highly successful crime novel plot for them to work out. As a family, the sisters and their alcoholic brother are so famous, so already-familiar to many readers, that this plotting is a masterstroke. What Ellis does really well is show us another possible side to their characters, and imagines how these highly intelligent women might behaved towards each other and their beloved brother in private. The sibling rivalry and love is keenly drawn, often leading to moments of warm humour. There are some laugh-aloud moments too, usually when Anne is allowed to undercut her older sisters. My favourite Bronte, however, remains Emily, here given a sense of intellectual confidence that she and her sisters can solve the mystery and save the day. To know that she really did buy that dress material is to hope that Ellis’ depiction of these vivid and often very humorous women in their private lives in Haworth isn’t far off the actual mark. Indeed, I often felt a real sadness watching these three fictionalised women seizing control of events, knowing that Emily and Anne would be dead within four years.
This is an excellent crime novel in itself, but the use of the Brontës is simply inspired. There are enough references to their own writings and lives to make the central device work. I’ll be honest and say that I was at first suspicious of such biographical tinkering, but Ellis is a brilliant writer and I so want these women to have had such adventures in their all-too-brief lives. I loved it.