The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

This is the second in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in a somewhat seedy Victorian England music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred at Christmastime fourteen years before the main story. In a different theater, subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children seated upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium bolted shut against them. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and one hundred eighty-three suffocated. No one was ever held to account for the tragedy—a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a skit-writer for the Variety Palace. She is temporarily in charge of the Palace while her boss, Edward Tansford (Tansie) recovers from the tragic events recounted in the earlier book. (While author Walsh makes frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to follow the story in this one.) Minnie is again teamed up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theater world has experienced a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. When Minnie and Albert discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realization gradually takes hold that all of the dead were connected in some way to the Christmastime tragedy. What’s more, all the deaths involved some form of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the children’s deaths, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again but soon distracted again—this time by the disappearance of his monkey, who, he believes, has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. Here Walsh gives you a peek at not just the talented and sometimes tony denizens and patrons of the Victorian theater world, but also a look at a decidedly seamy side of London life. Her vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable (even the monkey, who hides in the theater’s rafters and pees on the audience below).

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. There’s plenty of plot here, engaging characters, a  colorful setting, and a fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a solid historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

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