Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre
Trouble’s brewing in the Devil’s Half Acre. A death in an alleyway, a tragic accident in a factory, rumours of a murderer loose on the streets. It’s enough to give a genteel lady a fit of the vapours.
Fortunately, Grace Penrose isn’t one to swoon at the sight of blood. All she wants is the chance to become the first woman doctor in the colony. Instead, she is plunged into the harsh reality of the city’s worst sweatshop, where tensions are running as hot as a steam engine.
When the police prove reluctant to investigate the deaths, she turns to a constable who is already up to his neck in trouble. As the clock ticks, Grace Penrose and Constable Charlie Pyke must figure out which deaths are accidents and which are murders, because the next victim might well be one of their own.
“I know I’m reading a good book when it mentally captures me – I develop really strong mental images and impression of how the scene or place looks. I really did that with this book – I got a vivid sense of the gritty slums of Dunedin, but also the lovely garden, the elegance of the grand houses, and the steepness of the streets. The characters were well developed and felt really authentic and three dimensional.” ARC review
“A great read” ARC review
“Beautifully written, authentic setting and characters” ARC review
The Penrose & Pyke series is set during a period of social upheaval in New Zealand. The first book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by early campaigners for worker’s rights in Dunedin in 1890, although the story is pure fiction.
Dunedin is a fabulous city to visit, thanks in part to its interesting geology, ecology and history. The ring of hills around the city, long harbour and the picturesque Otago Peninsula are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The Royal Albatross colony is an amazing sight, especially if you’re lucky enough to see the birds soaring with their three metre wingspan.
Hard to believe now, but Dunedin was once the wealthiest and largest city in New Zealand, after settlement by Scottish, English and other immigrants was turbo-charged by the discovery of gold in the 1860s and the on-going wealth that flowed from sheep farming. The many grand Victorian-era buildings are a legacy of these golden years, including Otago University, many beautiful houses including this heritage building on High Street, Wains Hotel (still a boutique hotel) and the gorgeous, over-the-top Larnach Castle.
Much of the action in the story occurs around Walker Street (now Carroll Street), infamous epicentre of the Devil’s Half Acre, as shown in the right hand image below. The thigh-achingly steep High Street is shown top left and the stunning Larnach Castle on Otago Peninsula is bottom left. (Source: Hocken Library)
The plot revolves around Dunedin’s thriving woollen and clothing industry.
Early mechanical looms do rather look like an instrument of torture! (Source: Adobe Stock Images)
There really was a woollen mill at Mosgiel (see picture below), about 15km away from Dunedin, although the mill in the story is fictional (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).
I couldn’t find any photographs inside a clothing factory from the 1890s, and labour conditions had improved by the early 1900s, when the photos below were taken (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).
One of my favourite locations in the story is the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889-90 (see my blog post for more detail). What exhibition would be complete without a replica Eiffel Tower? Or a Moorish-style entrance? Part of the switchback railway can be seen in the tower photo. (Source: Hocken Library)
Finally, a couple of images of period detail – the police force of the era and the frankly scary medicines, like chlorodyne, being used as cure-alls at the time (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).
My thanks to the Hocken Library and National Library (including the Alexander Turnbull Library) for their wonderful digitised collections of old photographs. Do check out the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum if you are in Dunedin.