Review: A Pair of Sharp Eyes by Kat Armstrong (2019)

Set in early 18th century Bristol, this historical crime novel tells the story of Coronation (Corrie) Amesbury, a young girl who leaves rural Wiltshire to try and obtain a ‘place’ in the city. She arrives to find Bristol reeling from a series of murders of young boys, rumoured to be the work of a criminal nicknamed Red John. What follows is a deliciously pleasurable journey through the various spheres of Bristol life, from the merchant traders gambling on the price of sugar and slaves and retiring to their fine houses, to the poorest members of society trying to eke out a living alongside them.

From the very start, the reader is thrown into the action, and the intricately detailed world that the author has created. I have to admit that it took me a few pages to acclimatise to the language – Armstrong takes no prisoners and writes in a style that is so convincingly of the time that it is as if this novel has found its way here from the 18th century – but once I had adjusted, I was hooked. Corrie may be young, but she is not the naive, innocent girl that the reader might be expecting, and right from the start we see her negotiate her way through dangerous situations with admirable skill. There are subtle hints of a backstory that is never quite fully revealed; a touch which pleased me, as it gave her an unexpected depth: her defiant ‘that’s not for you to know’ attitude extends outward to the reader, and also avoids taking the novel into treacly romance territory.

What struck me most on reading this novel was the devilishly clever balancing act that the author performs. The plot has enough twists and turns to maintain a lively pace, but not so many as to be overwhelming. The dialogue is utterly convincing, as are the details of the food, clothes, and the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of Bristol. The modern sensibility that creeps in never compromises the book’s authenticity; rather, it allows for what feels like a ‘peek behind the curtain’: it is like reading an eighteenth century novel that has been freed from the constraints and censorship of the day, able to look square in the face issues such as slavery and prostitution that novels of the time had to draw a veil over. Corrie herself is an excellent protagonist and a pleasure to follow as she picks her way through the various obstacles and pitfalls that the city places in front of her. She, too, is a tightrope performer; treading a careful line between prudence and a sharp wit, her occasional flares of temper provide some of the most comic lines in this often hilarious book.

There are scenes of genuine tension in the book, too: the depiction of the storm that rages through Bristol is both frightening and exhilarating, and the discoveries of the murdered boys provide a chilling jolt in the narrative each time they occur. Once again, a careful balancing act restrains any tipping over into melodrama, while maintaining the thrill of a dramatic story well-told.

The supporting characters work hard in this book – each one is more than you expect, and as the connections between them are teased out, it becomes clear that there are many levels at play here. Mrs Tuffnell, Corrie’s capricious employer, is a complex and intriguing woman; there is something unsettling about the way she blows hot and cold, alternately rewarding and punishing depending on her whims, making her even more dangerous than a purely cruel mistress might be. The dynamics of the domestic servants in the Tuffnell household are well-drawn, and the relationships between Corrie and both her peers and her ‘betters’ are nuanced and realistic.

A Pair of Sharp Eyes is a joyously fast-paced yet intricate book: a treat for fans of eighteenth century novels, historical fiction, crime writing, or anything in between. On finishing this tightly-packed, immersive book, I was left feeling as if I had just been taken on a whirlwind tour of 18th century Bristol in all its colourful, deceitful glory, led by both a protagonist and an author into whose capable hands I was quite happy to entrust myself entirely.

Note: I received an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

A Pair of Sharp Eyes will be released in September 2019, and is available to pre-order now.

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