Book review: Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club by Julian Leatherdale

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 Permalink

It has to be said, the covers of Julian Leatherdale’s books are always exquisite. Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club is the second of his books I’ve read (Palace of Tears, his debut was published in 2015) and their covers reflect the opulent lives and stories dwelling in them.

Book review: Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club by Julian LeatherdaleDeath in the Ladies' Goddess Club
by Julian Leatherdale
Published by Allen & Unwin
on 03/03/2020
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Historical Fiction, Crime Fiction
ISBN: B0827FGN9Y, 9781760529635
Pages: 400
three-half-stars
Goodreads

In the murky world of Kings Cross in 1932, aspiring crime writer Joan Linderman and her friend and flatmate Bernice Becker live the wild bohemian life, a carnival of parties and fancy-dress artists' balls.

One Saturday night, Joan is thrown headfirst into a real crime when she finds Ellie, her neighbour, murdered. To prove her worth as a crime writer and bring Ellie's killer to justice, Joan secretly investigates the case in the footsteps of Sergeant Lillian Armfield.

But as Joan digs deeper, her list of suspects grows from the luxury apartment blocks of Sydney's rich to the brothels and nightclubs of the Cross's underclass.

I read this book in a sitting but must confess I did skim some which I assumed to be irrelevant to the unfolding plot.

I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction but Leatherdale has obviously done his research or knows A LOT about Australian artists and creative types in the 1930s. He name-drops like crazy and though I’d heard of one or two… (a well known prostitute who I’ve come across in another book), I didn’t know most. I am assuming they’re all real people though given the texture he was able to add. While I appreciated the context… about this person’s poetry or sculpture (for eg) I felt overwhelmed on a couple of occasions as a result of the many names and level of detail on offer.

However… I really loved our lead character Joan – a wannabe crime writer in a time when women didn’t do such things. Her idol is a special sergeant with the Women’s Police Unit though to many they’re glorified office girls and only brought in for overwrought women or… sensitive issues – like the murder of a prostitute.

I loved the way Leatherdale introduces Joan, initially along with her previous lover (a journalist), as it sets the scene for her obsession with not only writing about crime, but understanding the crimes themselves.

I found Joan’s relationship with her roommate and best friend Bernice to be interesting. Bernice is basically a party animal but Joan initially talks about her being her mentor and comments on her success as a writer. Later though (p 201), when she starts to suspect Bernice of not being entirely honest with her she’s far more judgemental about her roomie’s cocaine use and party-going nature. She’s quite dismissive in her comments (to we readers) about Bernice’s erotic plays and ‘trashy lurid novels’.

We meet Joan’s boyfriend Hugh, who has ties to the burgeoning Communist party and struggling with post-traumatic stress after the war. And then there’s Joan’s wealthy aunt and uncle – her aunt being at the forefront of the ‘sex reform’ movement and founder and host of the Ladies’ Bacchus (Goddess) Club.

It’d be easy for the murder of Ellie to be lost in such a luscious world full of stark contrasts. People are reacclimatising after the war and Leatherdale sets this murder/mystery against a backdrop of eccentric artists, mobsters, prostitutes, crooked cops, weird sex clubs and changing politics.

I perhaps wasn’t entirely convinced by some of those excesses, including Joan’s own values and actions. I did however really enjoy the camaraderie of the poor-but-‘rich’ bohemian creative types. And—in the unfolding mystery of Ellie and her murder—Leatherdale throws in a few surprises.

Those fond of the rich texture of our history and the lives of the creative community will certainly enjoy this book. (Not to mention those familiar with Sydney’s historical buildings and the politics of that time.) For me it was all about the murder mystery and Joan and her aspirations that made this an enjoyable read.

Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club by Julian Leatherdale was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

three-half-stars

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