About the Book:
This dazzling new Victorian mystery from USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden introduces readers to Nell Hallam, a determined young pianist who stumbles upon the operations of a notorious—and deadly—crime ring while illicitly working as the piano player in a Soho music hall...
Nineteen-year-old Nell Hallam lives in a modest corner of Mayfair with her brother Matthew, an inspector at Scotland Yard. An exceptionally talented pianist, she aspires to attend the Royal Academy; but with tuition beyond their means, Nell sets out to earn the money herself—by playing piano in a popular Soho music hall. And the fact that she will have to disguise herself as a man and slip out at night to do it doesn’t deter her.
Spending evenings at the Octavian is like entering an alternate world, one of lively energy, fascinating performers, raucous patrons—and dark secrets. And when Nell stumbles upon the operations of an infamous crime ring working in the shadows of the music hall, she is drawn into a conspiracy that stretches the length of London. To further complicate matters, she has begun to fall for the hall owner's charismatic son, Jack, who has secrets of his own.
The more Nell becomes a part of the Octavian’s world, the more she risks the relationships with the people she loves. And when another performer is left for dead in an alley as a warning, she realizes her future could be in jeopardy in more ways than one.
From the Author:
Until I started researching for my next novel, A Dangerous Duet, I really knew very little about music halls except that they came into being in the mid-1800s as one of several entertainment venues in London. As usual, when I started rooting around, I discovered all kinds of interesting facts about the associated lawsuits, scandals, fires, architecture, and ties to alcohol and prostitution; the relationships between music hall proprietors and the Metropolitan Police; and turf wars with theaters—many of which elements slide quite nicely into a mystery novel. I was lucky enough in 2012 to travel to London, where one of the last remaining halls, Wilton's Music Hall (est. 1859) still stages award-winning performances. As I prowled around the lower level, where the plaster crumbled away from the brick walls and the irregular floors from several buildings butted against each other, and as I gazed through the window at the back of the theater into the U-shaped hall, I could imagine the boisterous crowds and the costumed performers and Nell in a piano alcove near stage right; and my fictional music hall, The Octavian, suddenly had color and texture and shape.
The earliest music halls of the 1850s were really outgrowths of existing pubs, which added entertainment of some kind to the area where people could consume alcohol. These “saloons” morphed into the music halls that sprang up in many industrial areas—Leeds, Manchester, Bolton, and of course London. By 1866, London had between two and three hundred small music halls and about thirty large ones that would hold between 1,500 and 3,500 guests. So by the time of my novel (1875), the music hall culture was very well- established.
The music hall programme typically included rousing songs, dramatic acts, musicians, magicians, animal acts, jugglers, political comedy, singers, toffs, mimes, trampoline and trapeze acts, male and female impersonators, and strongmen. The songs and performances tended to be sensational, bawdy, and full of spectacles including outrageous costumes; and they often made a mockery of the middle-class values of temperance, decorum, and purity that the Reform Societies sought to instill among the lower classes. The music halls promoted what some critics call “counter-cultural values”: bawdiness, hedonism, sensuality, the mockery of authority, the representation of marriage as a tragi-comic farce, and the equality of the sexes in work, leisure, and sexual desire. For a modern-day comparison, picture a "Saturday Night Live" skit rather than an elaborately staged classic Broadway show.
Although the Victorian music halls were usually quite beautifully decorated, until the 1890s, audiences were primarily drawn from the working class and lower-middle class. Men, women, young, old, and families all attended, although men made up the large part of most audiences, and some shows were geared toward particular groups. The music hall was a rowdy place, where the sexes came in close proximity, where people could enjoy both alcohol and entertainment, and where audiences and the performers often interacted, breaking the “fourth wall” at the edge of the stage. One of the newspaper articles I found at Wilton’s was about a young man who’d been heckled by a member of the audience—to the point where he leapt off the stage and struck him. The heckler died, the performer was charged with murder—and Mr. Wilton himself had to intercede.
Perhaps naturally enough, given the alcohol consumption, the large audiences, and the prevailing attitude toward authority, many of the music halls had brushes with the law. Police and magistrates sought to exercise control over brawls that broke out, the presence of pickpockets and prostitutes, and various kinds of petty crime. But some music hall proprietors developed friendly relationships with the Police, holding benefit shows for the support of police orphans, and sending wine to police at Christmas. (In my novel, the music-hall owner Mr. Drummond and the police have a relationship that far surpasses this, but it began in these innocuous ways.)
As a place where social boundaries were crossed, where irony, double-entendre, farce, and comedy presided, and where the concerns of the working-classes provide the topics and themes of many performances, the music hall provided a space in which the working class could develop their own class identity, their own core of common knowledge and brand of humor, and self-confidence. As such, the music hall was part of the network of local organizations and community-based cultural institutions, such as parishes, neighborhoods, cooperatives, from which the Labour Party of the 1890s sprang. So it occupies an important place in any discussion of late 19th-century notions of class, community, and politics.
My gratitude to Jon Freeman, the building manager of Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley, London in 2012, for allowing me to take photographs and for answering questions. For further information about Wilton's current show schedule and an excellent record of the hall's history, see http://www.wiltons.org.uk/.
Wilton’s hall today. This became the hall in A Dangerous Duet: “The hall above, where the audience sat, had been elegantly renovated … with crystal chandeliers and paint in tasteful hues of blue and gold”
Wilton’s Music Hall, viewed from the outside. Note the narrow doorways that lead in. I loved them, especially because what’s behind them is so broadly various, both in terms of its material appearance and its history. Wilton’s music hall was originally five houses, 1-4 in Graces Alley and 19 Wellclose Square; plus an 18th-century pub, known as “The Prince of Denmark Tavern”; and a concert room, refashioned from The Mahogany Bar, dating from 1826. When Wilton purchased these, he was able to add on behind and unite the buildings. For some additional pictures and further information, see https://www.wiltons.org.uk/heritage/history and http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Wiltons.htm.