Dead Born

Written by Joan Lock
Review by Claire Cowling

This superb novel, one in the series of Joan Lock’s Detective Sergeant Best mysteries, was originally published in 2001 and has been reissued in 2013. The setting for this 19th -century historical novel’s intrigue is 1878, in which Best is investigating the discovery of a series of murdered babies, believed to have died at the hands of baby farmers. In his undercover role as an invalid in the guesthouse next door to the suspected culprits, he unearths far more than he bargained for as he discovers the fates of not just the babies born there, but also of some of the women who bear them. Emotions aroused in him during this case force him also to reassess his own feelings over a number of personal issues, including his relationship with his emancipated artist girlfriend, Helen.

The novel incorporates to great effect the events surrounding the sinking of the Princess Alice, one of the River Thames’ pleasure steamers. Lock’s focus specifically on the inner trauma such an event can cause so many in a community both moves the plotline forward and provides the reader with cause to critically analyse and critique the Victorian period and its penchant for mobility, invention and the practical issues which must be addressed in doing so.

This is so much more than a detective novel. It empathically depicts the plight of those women and girls who, for various reasons, were unable to care for their babies in 19th-century Britain, and the ways in which they were exploited for the sexual gratification and financial gain of others. Similarly, it draws the reader into the ever-prevalent debate over subjection and emancipation. At once an intriguing and well-paced murder mystery, and an emotive, poignant social commentary, this book is both satisfying and deeply disturbing on many levels. A well-deserved re-release.