Alex Hay: The Housekeepers

Alex Hay’s debut novel, The Housekeepers, is a tale of an all female heist in 1905 London. After Mrs. King, respectable housekeeper of a fine house, is let go, she’s all ready for revenge. Suspected of visiting a boyfriend in the middle of the night, but actually searching for secrets above stairs, Mrs. King wastes no time recruiting a team. Soon the plan to rob the house of all its contents, on the night of the Madame’s costume ball, is in motion.

But Mrs. King is hiding things, even from the reader. A con artist hired on at the house mysteriously, she was never what she seemed. Her compatriots aren’t exactly upstanding either – former fellow employee Winnie, her half sister and seamstress Alice, crime lord Mrs. Bone, washed up actress Hepzibah – but they’re all brought in pretty easily. Alongside Mrs. Bone’s most trusted women, and her fleet of men, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

The team has the expected dour butler to deal with, the gruff Cook, the shifty kitchen boy and the host of maids. Above all, though, there is the recently orphaned adult daughter of the house’s previous owner – Miss De Vries. Throwing a ball so soon after her father’s death pushes against propriety, and it hints at their complicated relationship. De Vries is an ice queen, cool and untouchable, cruel to the servants and difficult to read. Robbing her, Mrs. King is sure, it will be a pleasure.

The Housekeepers builds slowly. Secrets are revealed like foil peeled off of chocolate. It takes time to get to the heist itself, though watching these women work is a lot of fun. The biggest weakness of the book, perhaps, is how little we get to know the women themselves. While each have moments of inner reflection, none are fully fleshed out before the book ends. It can leave the reader wishing they knew Mrs. King better – but happy to be along for the ride she carefully crafted. – Margaret Agnew