She Be Damned: A Heloise Chancey Mystery by M.J. Tjia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
*I received a copy for review through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
I’ll be perfectly frank with a little tangent. When I first started reading the book I was drawn in by the writing style but put the book down for awhile because of the first two chapters. Gorey and gritty stories don’t attract me as a rule. True Crime interests me, I read horror and I don’t shy away from gore or grit but in mysteries my preference is for stories that explore inner motives and don’t place the focus on the obvious horror and fear. This is personal preference and it played a role in my putting the book down for so long despite being drawn in by the synopsis and the writing style generally.
Now for my review. The prologue is meant to draw you right into the action but depending on your expectations this is where you’ll probably put the book down. I made it to chapter two before I did. Both chapters introduce you to the world Heloise inhabits, the tone of the story and the way that other characters will view her. But I put it down because I just couldn’t connect. After about a month I decided to try it again and decide if I would just shelve it indefinitely. And to be honest, starting with chapter two I was hooked. The writing shines without the prologue and the first chapter. Although I understood why the first two chapters existed I didn’t need them in order to find my place in the book. Once I started reading again I stayed up all night and could not put the book down until I finished. I had to know what happened next.
Heloise is shades of Phryne Fisher but with a little more edge. Where Phryne is empowered by her own money, title and respected to some degree—Heloise is not. She’s a bit scrappy and I think that “She Be Damned” is meant to set the tone for a series. When I read the first two chapters it reminded me vaguely of Cocaine Blues because aspects of the plot have similarities and allow the author to introduce the audience to the struggles of women in a historic moment in time by showing us women who are left behind to fend for themselves. M.J. Tija does a fair job of presenting a simple mystery which gives us a glimpse into Heloise’s world (past and present). If you aren’t squeamish about a grittier story but also prefer a mystery with less gore I recommend skipping to the second chapter and starting from there.
The resolution of the story is—I would argue typical for many mysteries. It fit. I wasn’t wowed but I would read another because I liked Tija’s background characters. It’s a world I could see returning to. I don’t think it needs to lose the grit but it doesn’t need to try to fixate on it or sensationalize it. I thought there were plenty of more subtle scenes that captured a type of horror and discomfort better than the prologue. I gave the book four stars because once it did finally hook me I couldn’t put it down.
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