Aristocratic Lydia Langstone escapes her abusive husband and runs away to stay with Captain Ingleby-Lewis, a father she hardly knows, who lodges at No 7 Bleeding Heart Square.
The house used to be owned by a Miss Philippa Penhow, a middle aged spinster, but she disappeared four years previously after a relationship with the new owner, the charismatic but threatening Joseph Serridge.
Rory Wentworth, a struggling journalist recently back from India, and fiancee to Miss Penhow's niece Fenella Kensley, is encouraged by Narton, a seedy plain clothes policeman to get a room at Bleeding Heart Square in order to find out what happened to Miss Penhow. Narton spends his time watching Bleeding Heart Square and claims to be investigating the suspected murder of Miss Penhow.
Lydia's horrible husband Marcus is involved with the British fascists, whose local leader Sir Rex Fisher is courting Lydia's sister Pammy, while Fenella seems attracted to Julian Dawlish, a rich young socialist. There are a lot of interrelated characters in this novel.
Lydia struggles to become accustomed to her new financial position and discovers there are other connections between the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Square.
What did happen to Miss Penhow? How did Joseph Serridge obtain her property? Why is someone sending rotting hearts to Serridge?
Multi award winning author Andrew Taylor has written a long complicated story with numerous characters in his novel Bleeding Heart Square. There are so many characters I was forced to make a list of all them, and fill in their relationships as the story developed. The narrative drive was rather turgid as Andrew weaves a spider's web of relationships with consummate skill.
An atmosphere was created of fear and mystery and I felt I was in the deep and darkest bowels of Dickensian London. But like Woody Allen in the movie, when his life flashes before his eyes and he complains it is the wrong life, that atmosphere seemed wrong for 1934.
The promotional video for the book shows a very Victorian Joseph Serridge and Philippa Penhow, and the whole setting in the early part of the book except for an occasional motor car and the mention of Oswald Mosley might have been written by Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. The character of the creepy simpering Malcolm Fimberry is straight out of a Dickens novel.
The action does liven up in the final third of the book with an excellent account of a fascist meeting and the violence that followed. Despite my misgivings at the book's length and the complex plot it is beautifully written and it did keep me turning the pages to the end. I just wish Andrew Taylor had more confidence in the 1934 setting and was less interested in writing a pastiche.
My little chart of the participants allowed me to work out one important relationship, and have a fairly good idea of the final solution to the mystery in which coincidence plays a big part.
Andrew Taylor is a highly talented writer but I think he let himself get too immersed in creating the mysterious atmosphere. This slowed the narrative to almost a full stop before he pushed on to a much better closing third of the book. This was one of those books that could have well been 100 pages shorter because the story of the menace of fascism was hidden among all the Victorian melodrama.
"Her bleeding heart lay on the cobbles."
"I say," Ingleby-Lewis said. "Rather strong meat, what?"
"Oh-yes. I am frightfully sorry, Mrs Langstone. I hope I-"
"What about the man who was with her?" Lydia asked.
"He was never seen again."
"But who was he?"
Fimberry smiled. "They say he was the devil."