The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester: A rollicking good read

Cover image Sometimes what you need – particularly at this time of the year when the weather’s dire, Christmas jollifications are over and the bills are rolling in – is a rollicking good read. Nothing fancy in the writing department, no phrases to savour and linger over – just a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling with a bit of suspense and some nifty plotting which is what Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory delivers with the added interest of a suffragette trapeze artist.

It opens with a moment of high drama as Ebony Diamond launches herself into the Albert Hall just as Prime Minster Asquith begins his speech, unfurling the distinctive women’s suffrage banner behind her. Surely worthy of grabbing every headline worldwide given the new Reuters machines spewing out stories as soon as their reporters can type them but she’s pipped to the post by an even more dramatic event. The story’s picked up six months later in November 1912 when Frankie – trouser-clad, cigarette-smoking girl reporter – is sent off to take a portrait of Ebony for the London Evening Gazette, tracking her down to Olivier Smythe’s, a Mayfair corsetier, where she finds her quarry in no mood to have her picture taken. When a woman is found murdered later that day wearing a tightly-laced corset, it seems that Ebony’s efforts for women’s suffrage have been brought to an abrupt end. Then another body is discovered, also corset-laced. Soon Frankie’s caught up in mystery which seems to uncover more questions than answers – as all the best mysteries do – aided and abetted by young Liam and Milly, a snake-charming dancer with a noble pedigree.

The Hourglass Factory romps along, picking up corset fetishists, an ex-courtesan, men in tiger suits, mad aristos and a policeman with a heart of gold along the way. Clues are spilled – there’s an ingenious bit of plotting with playing cards and gunpowder – and the plot thickens nicely, all coming together in a suitably frenetic, white-knuckle finale. It’s all a great deal of fun but there’s much to enlighten if you’re interested in the women’s suffrage movement, all neatly stitched into the story with an historical note at the end. Altogether, a very enjoyable piece of escapism and cheers to Simon & Schuster for publishing it in paperback original format, nicely affordable despite the Christmas hole in readers’ pockets.

It always comes as a shock to me whenever I read anything about women’s suffrage to remember that universal suffrage was not enacted until 1928 – only women over thirty who fulfilled a property requirement were granted the vote in 1918 which narrowed the field down considerably. My mother made sure I knew that votes for women were hard-won and that I should always use mine, and I do even if it’s to spoil it which I’ve only resorted to once. The thing is, if you don’t vote you can’t really complain about the things our politicians get up to.

20 thoughts on “The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester: A rollicking good read”

  1. Hear, hear! A fun recount of history, by the sounds of it. And speaking as someone who fought for the right to vote (freely), I would never not make use of this right, although I no longer vote in my home country, because I feel that I don’t have the right to make decisions affecting the people who live there, since I no longer live there. Sorry, long sentence, hope it makes sense!

    1. It makes complete sense, Marina, and I salute your fight! I’ve been deeply touched by news footage of queuing voters – some of whom have had to face great danger to reach polling stations – in recently enfranchised countries.

  2. Great review, Susan. You already know I loved this book too. I love your final paragraph; my mum also taught me that women died so I could vote and she used to take me to the polling station with her so, also like you, I’ve never not voted, it seems unimaginable not to exercise a right we had to fight for.

    1. Thanks, Naomi. I remember getting into conversation with an Australian woman about politics and being ashamed when she asked me what voter turnout was in the UK. As you probably know, voting is compulsory in Australia. I would prefer voters to head to the polls voluntarily but sometimes I wonder if the Aussies have the right idea.

      1. I think the fact that people aren’t fired up about politics says a lot about the state of politics in this country – you only need to look at the turnout in the Scottish Referendum to see that when people know their vote will count and they see the possibility for change they will vote. I’ve been a fan of a compulsory system for a while now; if that’s what it takes to get people talking and thinking and acting on it, so be it. (Won’t happen here though, woe betide our politicians imposing anything which might mean they can’t sit in cushy safe seats for an entire career.)

        1. Hmm.. there’s that old post past the post debate, too. I’m watching Borgen again as my own particular preparation for the election!

  3. I’ve wanted to read this since reading Naomi’s review and also since listening to Lucy’s shortlisted Costa story which was beautifully written so I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

    1. I particularly liked the way a good-old fashioned yarn is combined with history in this one. I hope you enjoy it, Tanya.

  4. I do like the sound of this. I was going to mention the Scottish Referendum turnout, but Naomi beat me to it! When I was a child my parents would never tell us how they voted – people are much more open nowadays. They were similarly private about their finances too. Presumably they thought we’d all be discussing them in the playground? (They were right!) But yes, this book sounds great. Fab cover too!

    1. Politics was always a big subject for my family, and it still is the default supper time discussion between me and my partner. I think you’re right about the jacket. The proof has a tightly-corseted young woman on the front but this one’s more subtle!

  5. I requested a review copy of this as soon as you all started saying on Twitter how good it is. I hope to revisit your review once I read the book, but after reading the first paragraph of your review, I can’t wait!!!

      1. It was what you said about this time of the year: Christmas is suddenly over, we need to go back to work, January is ALWAYS hard, etc. I need a good book to cheer me up (or one that contains an autopsy, and I’ve already read Kay Scarpetta #7, so got it covered for some months).

        1. Ah, well, being squeamish The Hourglass Factory is definitely the better option for me. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it, Elena.

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