4.5⭐️ – The Murder Next Door is Sarah Bell’s debut novel and what a debut it is! A historical mystery with a sapphic couple investigating and so much more.
Ada Chapman is a painter and a sketch artist for the police. She lives with Louisa Knight, officially as a companion but they’re really lovers. Ada is impulsive and creative, Louisa is rational and logical. When their neighbour is murdered and his wife and son disappear, Ada can’t resist getting involved, despite Louisa’s misgivings.
This is apparently not the first time the couple gets involved in police work, another case is mentioned a few times that may not have ended well. While both women’s past is alluded to, those mentions give them a past as a couple as well and add depth to their relationship. Speaking of which, their relationship is one of my favorite parts of this story (I liked plenty of parts, keep reading for more). Their love for each other is obvious but they’re not exactly on an equal footing. Louisa is wealthy and posh, Ada reins in the accent that betrays her origins. Ada is free and self-confident, despite birthmarks that make people stare, whereas Louisa grew up with an unloving and demanding father and is only now, thanks to Ada, coming to terms with her asexuality as well as her ability to love.
The secondary characters are as good as the two mains. Davey, Ada’s childhood friend and now a policeman, and Sophie, the couple’s young maid and protégée, were my favourite but most of them are multilayered and well-written.
The atmosphere is fantastic. The story is set in Leeds (England) in 1912. The language, both in the narrative and in dialogues, takes the reader back seamlessly. The author doesn’t shy away from social issues of the time (which aren’t so different from those we still face, a quite discouraging fact): classism, racism, sexism…
The mystery itself is effective, with twists and revelations. Unveiling the culprit isn’t what matters most (even though the suspense about what happened is very satisfying), it’s a pretext for a reflection on justice, the police and the dichotomy between legality and morality.
I don’t know if Sarah Bell has plans to bring Louisa and Ada back in another mystery in the future but I wouldn’t say no to a sequel, or a series.