Literary non-fiction demands that a respectable household is not really a respectable household — and the Bastendorffs of 4 Euston Square fully oblige. The family take in lodgers at their elegant townhouse in Bloomsbury and, just as they are sprucing it up to welcome their latest in May 1879, a mystery corpse is uncovered in their coal cellar.
It would not spoil anything to say that the Bastendorffs turn out to be a pretty kooky bunch, headed up by Severin, the paterfamilias who started life in rural Luxembourg. Thanks to Severin’s heritage, we skip past the well-worn Disney Victoriana of gas lamps and sooty urchins and into the more unusual territory of London’s burgeoning Germanic subculture. Our ingenious detective hero, despatched to investigate the crime, is Inspector Charles Hagen, also of German descent, who uses the victim’s gold watch and a missed dental appointment to great effect.
However, the scene-stealer — no mean feat for someone who is dead — is Matilda Hacker, the eponymous lady in the cellar. Sinclair McKay artfully pieces together the life of the rambunctious spirit who used to inhabit the grisly remains. Wealthy and eccentric, with no need of work, sixtysomething Hacker was a keen boulevardière. She took to striding long distances every day in ‘costumes of extraordinary pattern and grotesque style’, her skirt hitched up to show her high-heeled boots and silk stockings, and her dyed auburn hair in ringlets ‘like a girl of 18’.
Hacker gets into umpteen scrapes with the police and pops up around London under the guises of a Miss Sycamore, a Miss Bell and a Miss Uish. We are her companions around the upmarket spare rooms of Bloomsbury, Chelsea and Marylebone as she moves on with her strong box full of jewels, trunk of satin dresses and copy of Napoleon’s Oraculum. She liked to use this ancient mystic text, discovered by Napoleon’s forces in Egypt, to make celestial prognostications of an evening. With her supply of ginger biscuits, her congenial company and Tarot card readings, she beguiled her fellow lodgers and her landladies — until she made her ill-fated move to Euston Square.
Another magnetic character is the Bastendorffs’ disgraced maid Hannah Dobbs, who has arrived from Devon and, like Hacker, is hoping to reinvent herself after a tumultuous personal life and run-ins with the law. After the trial she sells the ‘real story’ of Hacker’s murder and of her life as the Bastendorffs’ maid to a news agency.
With the gusto of a penny dreadful, The Lady in the Cellar dodges any stodgy courtroom testimony that can weigh down true crime stories and sticks to the juicy details. It is hard to avoid the comparison with Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and it has similar historical richness and plot twisting. However, the Netflix box set-style cliffhangers at the end of so many chapters become a little contrived, as does the liberal seasoning of rhetorical questions. In one particularly dense concentration, I found myself exasperated and thinking, ‘you’re the author, you tell me’.
As a compelling crowd-pleaser that requires minimal factual recall ability, a television producer is bound to read this and wonder whether old Cumberbatch could be coaxed into playing another Victorian sleuth. Its drama potential is not meant disparagingly. What could have been a tweedy tick-box Miss Marple murder mystery grows into something more curious and considerably more complex, without losing sight of its duty to keep moving and to entertain. Read it now, or catch it in that Sunday night drama slot.