REVIEW: Queens of London by Heather Webb
Maybe women can have it all, as long as they’re willing to steal it.
1925. London. When Alice Diamond, AKA “Diamond Annie,” is elected the Queen of the Forty Elephants, she’s determined to take the all-girl gang to new heights. She’s ambitious, tough as nails, and a brilliant mastermind, with a plan to create a dynasty the likes of which no one has ever seen. Alice demands absolute loyalty from her “family”—it’s how she’s always kept the cops in line. Too bad she’s now the target for one of Britain’s first female policewomen.
Officer Lilian Wyles isn’t merely one of the first female detectives at Scotland Yard, she’s one of the best detectives on the force. Even so, she’ll have to win a big score to prove herself, to break free from the “women’s work” she’s been assigned. When she hears about the large-scale heist in the works to fund Alice’s new dynasty, she realizes she has the chance she’s been looking for—and the added bonus of putting Diamond Annie out of business permanently.
TW/CW – Extreme domestic/gender violence
First let me say that as of right now, based on reviews I’ve read, my viewpoint is very much in the minority regarding this book. The cover and the blurb promised me a great book set among female thieves in 1920s London being chased by a wonderful female detective. That isn’t what I got. Not by a long shot.
Things start very slowly but then there are four main characters whose backgrounds have to be sketched in plus we have to be given information about the Forty Elephants – the all female criminal gang of (mainly) hoisters (shoplifters) that Alice Diamond runs. Female police inspector Lilian Wyles is one of the few women still on the police force after the men came home from war and she’s raring to prove herself in this man’s world by taking down Alice and the Elephants. Hira is an eleven year old biracial girl sent back to England by her British father and Indian mother. When news of their death reaches London, Hira flees from her Uncle’s house rather than be shipped off to a ghastly girl’s school (little better than Lowood School) in Northumberland. Dorothy is a shop assistant looking to improve her life and thinks she’s on her way when her boss singles her out and they begin an affair.
The pace of the book is agonizingly slow, things are repeated to the point I was groaning out loud for the plot to get moving, and I quickly realized that few of these characters were people I wanted or could root for. Alice is supposed to be such a hard-as-nails leader of this gang but all she does is set them up for small time heists that don’t seem to bring in enough money to give the women more than a good night out at pubs. She’s also supposed to be keeping the gang in line and looking out for them but is incompetent at doing either. Her best ideas come from either eleven year old Hira or the male crime boss in the area. She keeps thinking she needs to check on one particular gang member but when she discovers that woman is being beaten up by her boyfriend, Alice lets things go for a week before checking on Ruth again. Alice also knows she ought to save money for the Big Reason in the plot but — nah, screw it, she wants a night out. Case a potential heist? She’ll have someone do it later. Put pressure on someone to get what she wants? She’ll threaten the guy by telling him that the men from the male gang will rough him up. Alice did not impress me at all.
Hira at least has the gumption to leave a bad situation. She’s eleven so I don’t expect her to think much ahead and she soon sees that the East End of London is nothing like Mayfair. Yet before too long, Hira is smoothly pickpocketing as if she’s done it all her life including lifting the wallet of one of Alice’s fences. That was absurd and no, I don’t believe this at all. Hira also appeals to almost everyone and soon has all three MC women looking out for her despite not knowing her for long.
Lilian has worked hard to establish her credentials as a competent policewoman. She’s studied, worked hard, and won’t let any man treat her first as a woman and second as a policewoman. She thinks that collaring Alice and the Elephants will be her big break and lead to her fellow police officers finally respecting her. After reading everything she can about gangs, she knows that they usually have hideouts and headquarters but after following known Elephants to a run down building, it takes her about 30 minutes to clue into what she’s found. “Oh, wait! This could be the headquarters!” Yeah, Lilian, you figured it out.
Dorothy is sadly the silliest of them. Dorothy has been told all her life by her mother and others that she’s not that smart. She is pretty and talented with dress design but gullible is a kind word to use for her. From the moment she lets herself start being taken advantage of by her sleeze of a boss, I was counting down to when she’d finally realize what was happening. When the penny drops, Dorothy is filled with self righteous rage and plans to confront someone who has done her wrong but then … doesn’t. She finally (!) does let rip but, as she marches out, now she’s just unemployed and publicly humiliated. Yay, Dorothy.
The pace needed to be faster. The writing was serviceable but not dazzling. There is a huge degree of grimness in the lives of these characters but mainly I wanted some competence from these women. It is almost painful for Alice to be described as ruthless and “a brilliant mastermind” only to repeatedly see that she isn’t. Lilian seems to spend all her time basically doing nothing useful despite being “one of the best detectives on the force.” Dorothy is sweet but the people in her life really haven’t been lying to her. Hira just wants to survive so I’ll accept this eleven year old doing whatever it takes despite most of that going against her moral code. I made it to the 82% mark and thought, no, I don’t care to continue any further. So I’m DNFing it this close to the finish line. It does have a beautiful cover though …