Wednesday, October 7, 2015


THE PETTICOAT MEN by Barbara Ewing (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

The Victorian gossip mongers called them The Petticoat Men. But to young widow Mattie Stacey, they are Freddie and Ernest, her gentlemen lodgers. It is Mattie who admires their sparkling gowns, makes their extravagant hats and laughs at their stories of attending society balls dressed up as the glamorous 'Fanny' and 'Stella'. But one fateful night Fanny and Stella are arrested, and Mattie and her family are dragged into a shocking court trial, described in newspapers all over England as 'The Scandal of the Century'. Outraged, Mattie is determined to save her family from ruin, and her friends from shame and penury. She embarks on a brave journey to expose the establishment's hypocrisy - including the involvement of Mr Gladstone the Prime Minister, and the Prince of Wales. For Fanny and Stella are dangerous ladies, and these are dangerous times... 

Based on the true story of the trial of two men in 1871, THE PETTICOAT MEN places real-life characters into a fictional scenario to create an extremely entertaining, and very readable story.

It is true that the young Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were put on trial for "conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence", they were both well-known cross-dressers and suspected homosexuals, although acquitted due to the prosecutions failure to prove either the sexual activity or that wearing women's clothing was actually a crime. The trial was a sensation due to the nature of the allegations, but also because of their connections to members of the aristocracy.

In THE PETTICOAT MAN there are more characters from society and establishment drawn into the story, which based on the circles they mixed in, comes across as reasonable conclusions to draw. This is probably helped by the feel of the entire book, which has a truthfulness to it that's incredibly compelling.

The central, and most vocal narrator, is Mattie Stacey. Daughter of the owner of the boarding house in which Freddie and Ernest rent a room to store their women's clothing, and to dress, Mattie is absolutely outraged when her family's good name and address are dragged into the gossip and innuendo surrounding the trial. She's not outraged at either of the men, one of whom she is particularly attached to after he had been particularly kind to her, but because she, her mother, and her brother are decent people, who run a clean house and are loyal to their friends, and they most definitely do not run a questionable establishment. Mattie's the star of this book, her voice is so beautifully crafted she's real, and she's fabulous. Brave and true, she might not have had a lot of formal education but she, and her brother, are self-educated, self-motivated and good people. As is her mother, and had been her father - both theatre people themselves which probably means that the men's antics came as less of a matter of comment than it might.

The situation that Mattie and her family are dragged into because of the cruel and mindless gossip is difficult, but it seems there is nothing like a difficulty to straighten Mattie's back, to firm her mother's resolve, and to ensure her brother makes the best. He's particularly exercised by the situation as he loses his much loved job as a clerk in Parliament, and in Mr Gladstone's office, and must make do with lesser employment, despite the unfairness. Mattie herself, has had her own trials, widowed at a very young age, betrayed by a lover, her malformed foot is a disability that means that she stands out when she least wants to, and seems to imply that life as a childless widowed hat maker might be her lot. Mind you, there's nothing maudlin about Mattie, nor any of them for that matter.

The only downside to THE PETTICOAT MEN is that much of the circumstances leading up to the trial are sketchy, and the fate of Freddie and Ernest a little brush-stroked towards the end. Whilst it's perfectly understandable that the focus would remain with the Stacey family, as this was presented to this reader as a "crime" novel, the balance was a little off. Call it a ripper of a yarn though, and there'd be no quibble at all.

THE PETTICOAT MEN was a finalist in the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

Her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. We thank her for letting us republish this old review of Mark Abernethy's debut espionage thriller as part of our ongoing NZ crime fiction review project. Abernethy is a New Zealand born and raised journalist who moved to Australia as an adult.

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