By Mary Hooper
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 0 7475 9920 3
Spiritualism - the ability to talk to the spirits of the dead - was big business amongst high society in cities like New York and London at the end of the 19th century. Anyone could set themselves up as a medium and hold seances to conjure up the spirits of dead loved ones.
The rich paid good money to attend seances, and even famous Victorians like the writer Arthur Conan Doyle believed that spiritualism was real.
Mary Hooper sets her latest historical novel against the backdrop of the spiritualism craze in London. Velvet is the story of an innocent young woman who winds up aiding and abetting a famous society medium as she fleeces the rich and gullible of their money. Victorian spiritualism could have given Hooper a wealth of material to write a thrilling horror novel, but instead she treads on the fringes of the subject to come up with a soapy historical romance.
There is nothing here to spook readers. Those of a delicate disposition may well be relieved, but most will be disappointed.
Velvet, the eponymous heroine, is an orphan in her late teens who is struggling to make ends meet by working in a grim laundry. A famous society medium called Madame Savoya discovers Velvet's name when she makes inquiries about the girl who washes her laundry so well. Savoya takes Velvet from the laundry and raises her to the status of lady's maid in her house.
Velvet cannot believe her luck; astute readers won't either, finding Velvet's sudden good fortune implausible.
It doesn't take Velvet long to suspect that her employer might not be all she pretends to be. Velvet watches as rich customers fall into Savoya's clutches, and when the medium persuades our innocent heroine to help her kidnap a baby so she can dupe a rich client who has lost a baby daughter, Velvet realises she has got herself into murky waters. How can she escape before things get out of hand?
Velvet's biggest problem is the title character's personality and the soppiness of some unconvincing plot turns. Velvet is too naive, and doesn't see things coming that the reader has seen a mile off. Madame Savoya's character, meanwhile, is way too underdeveloped to make any impact.
Velvet is sadly too bland to excite any but the most undemanding and gullible of readers.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com