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From C. Auguste Dupin and Inspector Bucket to Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Goole, nineteenth and twentieth century fiction is populated by smart and astute male detectives. Now Bella Ellis – the pen name of author Rowan Coleman – is bringing some much-needed femininity to the historical detective genre with the introduction of a brand new mystery series featuring the famous Brontë sisters.

When a young woman goes missing from her sprawling home in the Yorkshire countryside, the sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – are equally horrified and intrigued by the mysterious disappearance. There’s no trace of a body, dead or alive, only a room covered in blood and hastily cleaned, which indicates that something terrible happened to the lady of the house. The Brontë sisters might be respectable daughters of a humble parson, but they are resourceful, bright woman with intense, infinite imaginations. There’s more to this mystery and they are determined to uncover the truth.

In a society ruled by men who believe that women have neither the ingenuity, ambition or capability to be anything other than wives, mothers, homemakers or servants, the Brontës are at a distinct disadvantage from the beginning. They must be artful and creative in their sleuthing, using their intellect and instincts to tease information from potential witnesses and lure out possible suspects.

Coleman previously shared her lifelong love of the Brontë sisters with readers in her summer novel The Girl At The Window and, under the Bella Ellis pen name, she further explores who these fascinating, revolutionary women writers were. More importantly, she’s able to reimagine who and what they could have been, allowing Charlotte, Emily and Anne to live and breathe through the pages as they turn their brilliant minds to detecting.

A vivid sense of place and time instantly transports readers back to the 1800s but the story is slow to get going. Unlike the twist-a-minute detective novels we’re used to in contemporary fiction, The Vanished Bride takes a more leisurely approach, circling the crime scene for a large portion of the beginning of the book, before the sisters expand the search further afield. Descriptions of places, people and feelings are detailed and evocative, reflecting the era that the Brontës lived in. I’m more partial to a fast-paced detective tale but there’s also a certain charm in this more sedate style of historical mystery fiction.

If you’ve ever read the Brontë sisters’ works, you’ll see the themes of their writing reflected in their very different personalities and attitudes here. Anne is mild mannered and demure, whilst Charlotte is perceptive and tenacious, something that often puts her at odds with the strong-willed and obstinate Emily. Even Branwell – the sisters’ habitually drunk and disorderly brother – gets embroiled in the mystery, making this a real family affair.

The Vanished Bride is an entertaining Victorian detective tale but it’s more than that. It’s a story of women surreptitiously rebelling against a society that sought to clip their wings; it’s a story of three sisters determined to right the wrongs of powerful men and seek justice for those more vulnerable; and it’s the story of a literary legacy that continues to captivate readers to this day. Like The Girl At The Window, this is an essential read for Brontë fans and the perfect historical mystery story to get you through these cold December days.

★★★★

The Vanished Bride was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7 November 2019

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