Part Victorian romp, part morality tale, Grace Hammer introduces an unusual heroine: a professional thief who has cut her teeth on the mean streets of London’s East End in the late 19th century. The era is defined by the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s expansion of empire and the colonization of India but is also memorable for its rampant poverty and extremely lax living conditions in less fortunate areas of the city.
The East End is the dark underbelly of Victorian pretensions, with crime, prostitution, child theft, and other general inhumanities the daily fare of those who fall beneath the cracks of society. Blooming in this ghastly garden, Grace is one of the most charming characters in recent Victorian fiction. Stockbridge’s protagonist is as colorful as the streets she inhabits, raising her four light-fingered children with the necessary skills to survive, although young Daisy so far remains oblivious to the activities of her mother and three brothers.
Although Grace’s children are from different fathers, the family is a loving, well-organized unit thanks to Grace’s management of family finances and skills. Unfortunately, Grace has a murky past, her penchant for theft not without certain dangers and a shady reputation. Suddenly, a deed from the past surfaces to threaten the security of mother and children as a sleeping ogre, master thief Horatio Blunt, ruminates over a precious jewel Grace liberated years ago. More obsessed with revenge on the sly young Grace than the object she took, Blunt “dreams, with pleasure, of slitting her throat.”
With vivid prose, Stockbridge salts her novel with the urgency of our heroine’s dilemma as Blunt abandons his lair when word arrives of a Grace Hammer sighting. The result is a nail-biting chase where Blunt closes in and Grace evades, various greedy opportunists supplying information through a vast network of spies for a small fee. In this den of thieves there is no honor, and Grace barely escapes time and again. Meanwhile, Londoners are terrified by a spate of gruesome murders perpetrated by Jack the Ripper, the East End bathed in the blood of unfortunate prostitutes.
A unique jewel among the chaff of her fellow miscreants, Grace relies on the support of those she has assisted over the years, falling in brief, passionate love with Jack Tallis, a roué caught up in the slipstream of her charms, a charmer finally charmed. A bad girl with a generous heart, Grace is an unusual character in a novel that exposes the cruelty and horrors of the East End and the eccentric personalities who scramble for existence from the spoils of the toffs.
Through the squalor of the streets and the desperate lives of the disenfranchised, Grace is but one step from tragedy in a harrowing chase that smacks - for me - of “Night of the Hunter,” albeit a different era. Well done, this most unusual Victorian thriller.