MLA Platinum Award Press Release

BookBrowse Reviews The Hocus Girl by Chris Nickson

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Hocus Girl

A Simon Westow mystery

by Chris Nickson

The Hocus Girl by Chris Nickson X
The Hocus Girl by Chris Nickson
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jan 2020, 224 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Second in the Simon Westow series, The Hocus Girl is a historical mystery about thief-takers dealing with government corruption in 19th century England.

The second book in the Simon Westow Mystery series, The Hocus Girl is set in 1822 Leeds, in the north of England, at a time when several cultural revolutions have everyone on edge. With industrialization on the rise, the Luddite rebellion, made up of workers who feared machines would take their jobs, has recently been quelled. England has just passed the Six Acts (intended to prevent disturbances by gagging newspapers and criminalizing any meetings calling for radical reform), and government officials are cracking down on suspected "rebels"—even spying on small gatherings and plundering circulating literature for evidence. Distrust permeates the city, leaving citizens to solve their own problems using means of questionable ethics.

The main characters are morally ambiguous people of their time. Simon Westow, his wife Rosie and their comrade Jane all work as thief-takers, a profession most closely compared to bounty hunters or private detectives today. Most frequently, they are hired by victims of theft to reclaim stolen property. (One such victim enlists the protagonist's help after being taken in by a "hocus girl"—a woman who drugs men and steals their belongings.) Simon spends most of his time traversing the streets of Leeds seeking out various people at local watering holes, bribing clerks and asking street magicians and printers to keep their ears open. Chris Nickson sets this scene well, describing the many shades of corruption in the city. As Simon walks around, he sees little girls stealing apples from a fruit stand while cops arrest a muddy street preacher ranting about Judgment Day. Rosie points out a rich woman who schemes to get discounts at shops, where the vendors in turn artificially raise prices to fool her into thinking she's getting good deals.

It is in this city of corruption and theft that Simon is called to help a truly kind and honest man. His longtime friend Davey Ashton has been arrested for sedition, and Davey's sister Emily pleads for Simon's help. Simon knows Davey to be a voracious reader with strong opinions about the government, but believes him incapable of any kind of conspiracy. Getting his friend out of prison is Simon's first priority, but he must continue with his usual work, which intersects with Davey's case in surprising ways.

My favorite part of the book was the contrast between Simon and his associate Jane. We don't know precisely why Simon became a thief-taker, but he clearly has a lot of loyalties. Not just to Davey, who took Simon in when he was a child, but also to his wife Rosie and their two boys. Jane, on the other hand, thrives on her anonymity, donning a shawl, hiding in shadows, and moving through the streets with her knife at the ready. While Simon copes by going home to his family, Jane frequently cuts herself as punishment for her mistakes or just to remember significant moments. It's compelling to see how the two approach the same work with differing philosophies. It becomes clear early on that Jane wouldn't hesitate to kill for a number of reasons, whereas Simon would do so only as a last resort of self-defense.

As Simon, Jane and Rosie seek to free Davey, they uncover more and more corruption. The deeper they get, the higher the stakes are raised, and people around them begin getting hurt. Meanwhile, small plot threads grow in importance; I found myself wondering how it would all come together. It's definitely a suspenseful read, especially since nobody knows how far the government's misdeeds extend. A pompous magistrate is foiling Simon's efforts, and he's even hired a menacing bodyguard. There's also a spy in town who may be reporting citizens to the government. Simon must get around these men in order to free Davey.

Because The Hocus Girl is so rooted in the street culture of the times, there are a lot of names to keep up with, and it's hard to remember if a character from chapters earlier is the kindly farrier or the corrupt clerk. I found it helpful to highlight names when I first encountered them so I could easily refer back; I had highlighted over 20 names by the book's end.

I have not read The Hanging Psalm, the first Simon Westow book, and I feel like The Hocus Girl works well as a standalone. I'm satisfied with how the loose ends were tied up, but I wanted to read more about how the events of the plot changed the characters. After getting to know them through these ordeals, I would've liked to see them move on afterwards, and there's only a glimmer of that. But perhaps my desire to watch these characters grow is a testament to the impression they've made on me and my curiosity about whether they'll transcend this gritty city that gives them life while always threatening to take it away. I look forward to learning more in the continuation of the series.

Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin

This review is from the The Hocus Girl. It first ran in the February 5, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Join Now!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Tokyo Ueno Station
    Tokyo Ueno Station
    by Yu Miri
    Kazu is a ghost, seemingly condemned to haunt one of Japan's busiest train stations, the grounds of ...
  • Book Jacket
    Delayed Rays of a Star
    by Amanda Lee Koe
    Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays of a Star begins with a late-1920s photo of three women at a party in ...
  • Book Jacket: Sleepovers
    Sleepovers
    by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
    In Ashleigh Bryant Phillips' debut story collection, Sleepovers, it can be difficult to keep tabs on...
  • Book Jacket
    The Beekeeper of Aleppo
    by Christy Lefteri
    In Christy Lefteri's sophomore novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, the author introduces readers to ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Voyage of the Morning Light
    by Marina Endicott

    A sweeping novel set aboard a merchant ship sailing through the South Pacific in 1912.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
by Christy Lefteri

This moving, intimate, and beautifully written novel puts human faces on the Syrian war.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Book Club Giveaway!
Win The Wedding Thief

The Wedding Thief
by Mary Simses

Funny, soulful, and as sweet as buttercream, The Wedding Thief is the perfect summer read.

Enter

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

A S Louder T W

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.