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Book Review: No Life For A Lady by Hannah Dolby

Book Review: No Life For A Lady by Hannah Dolby

Violet Hamilton was eighteen when her mother disappeared from Hastings Pier without a trace. Now at twenty-eight and still living in her family home in St Leonards, Violet’s father is beginning to worry that she’ll never settle down and find a husband. This is, after all, 1896, so an unmarried woman on the cusp of thirty is already heading towards the scrap pile (cue the mass eye roll). But Violet is quite happy with her spinster existence. She has no intention of becoming any man’s property and the thought of what goes on in the marital bedroom – from everything she’s been told, which admittedly isn’t very much – fills her with dread.

What Violet wants is to work and make her own way in the world. But more than anything, she’s desperate to find out what happened to her mother, Lily, ten years ago. Investigating a missing person is no job for a respectable lady, so when a new detective opens up shop in her hometown, Violet employs his help. Yet he’s not quite the upstanding private investigator she was expecting. Which leads her to another, much more skilled and infinitely more affable former detective called Benjamin Blackthorn, who offers hope to Violet in more ways than one. In digging up the past though, Violet sets off a chain of events that puts more than just her reputation at risk.

When a novel is billed as ‘the most joyful book of 2023’, I can’t help but approach with caution. On the one hand, we all need a little more joy in our lives. But such high praise is a lot for a book to live up to. It’s lucky then, that Hannah Dolby’s No Life For A Lady genuinely is the most joyful – not to mention funny, quirky and charming – book you’ll get your hands on this year. Refreshingly set against the classic British seaside backdrop of the East Sussex coast, it’s a historical novel with not a hint of stuffiness or convention, thanks in no small part to its heroine.

As I walked home, with my first payment from my first real employment in my pocket, I felt ten feet tall. I wanted more though. The knowledge came crashing over me on that mundane walk home, with the force of a giant wave, that I wanted nothing more in the whole wide world than to be a Lady Detective.”

Violet unwittingly endears herself to readers with her no-nonsense attitude and sheltered naivety – two things that shouldn’t really go hand-in-hand but do, with hilarious and heart-warming results. Violet can’t fathom the thought of settling down to a wearisome life as a wife and lady. It’s not just that she yearns for knowledge, freedom and adventure. It’s that she sees straight through the intentions of so-called gentlemen. She’s never met a man who’s captured her attention enough to make her even consider romantic liaisons, let alone marriage. But then she’s never met a man like Benjamin Blackthorn – an easy-on-the-ears name that demands you never shorten it – who values her opinions, appreciates her unconventional ways and delights in her strong-willed personality.

No Life For A Lady is driven by Violet’s determination to become a lady detective, but what pushes the character forward is the personal mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance. She might have been kidnapped or murdered. She might have simply run away – which would mean that she chose to abandon her husband and child. The why of her vanishing is as important to Violet as the how, and she’s determined not to give up until she discovers what happened all those years ago. Violet has been deeply affected by her mother’s disappearance and whilst there are a lot of emotions going on under the surface, Hannah Dolby keeps the story light, sprinkling every page with wit, warmth and empathy.

There’s a touch of Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell Mystery series to this book, whilst fans of TV series Miss Scarlet and the Duke will find much to enjoy here with a similarly spirited team-up that evokes the will-they-wont-they relationship between Victorian detectives Eliza and Duke. But the joy of No Life for a Lady is that it’s such a fun and fresh read, with such a wonderfully original and forward-thinking protagonist. It’s the kind of book that you read too fast and race to the end, only to then wish you’d slowed down and savoured the pages more.

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The good news is that Violet and Benjamin will be back for another round of detective duties. And with that enticing end (if you’ve already read the book, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about…), this is one historical mystery series that promises plenty more adventure, cosy crime and delightful romance. Not wanting to wish away time, but the next book can’t arrive soon enough.

★★★★★

No Life For A Lady was published by Aria on 2 March 2023

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