Alex Reeve's Leo Stanhope books are intelligent and atmospheric historical crime novels set in Victorian London. The hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner's assistant—and a man in love, who, in the first in the series The House on Half Moon Street, is drawn into a dangerous murder investigation in which everyone has secrets to hide. In The Anarchists' Club, Leo's identity is threatened when he becomes embroiled in a murder case once again and comes under pressure to give a false alibi to the leading suspect.
Here, Alex talks to us about the origins of his trans protagonist, his fears over cultural appropriation, and why he decided to put Leo back at the heart of his novel.
The first time I contemplated writing about a trans character I was sitting on a train, staring at the empty seat next to my co-worker, who happened to be a trans woman. The train was packed, people standing in the corridor, but for some reason no-one was sitting in that seat – at least, until a teenager on her phone barged through the crowd and plonked herself down.
My co-worker didn’t comment, but she must have noticed the glances. At that moment, I felt a burst of compassion and an inner rage. Surely, the most fundamental right we have as humans is to choose who we are?
I’d been considering writing a historical novel for a while and wondered whether it could feature a trans character. I decided to do some research. At least, I thought, things must have got better over the last hundred-and-fifty years.
Apparently not much. Then as now, there were numerous examples of trans men and women, as well as, presumably, lots of people who lived their lives in peace and obscurity. However, many of the same issues existed then as now too: misinformation, misunderstanding, legal ambiguity, societal disapproval, and physical and mental health issues.
At some point in my research process, someone appeared in my head almost fully formed. He was in his mid-twenties, the child of a small-town vicar, and had left home at fifteen to become Leo Stanhope. He was a bit of a romantic, innocent in some ways, sure of who he was but also amused by it. I started seeing the world through his eyes and hearing his voice explaining, sometimes impatiently, how the world would seem to him. Once he arrived, he wouldn’t leave.
I loved Leo, but I could see a million problems, the biggest being cultural appropriation. I’m not a trans man, so do I have the right to tell this story?
I tried everything. I undertook writerly contortions you wouldn’t believe.
First, I made Leo a sidekick, the friend of the central detective. But the story kept veering back towards Leo. Every time I looked, he was hogging the focus like an attention-seeking toddler.
Next, I tried demoting him, making him a ‘C’ character, hardly in the novel at all. But that looked like pure tokenism and was dramatically unsatisfying. It simply wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
After that, I took a couple of weeks to think. What was it that so fascinated me about this story?
The answer was obvious all along. What I cared about was identity; the right of every individual to decide who they are. And if that was going to be the story, Leo had to be at the heart of it. That was why he had taken up residence in my head.
I still felt concerned about cultural appropriation – which has never completely gone away – so I gave myself a rule: this wouldn’t be a novel about being trans, it would be a novel about a man who happened to be trans. That clarified everything for me. Leo was confronted by a tragedy anyone might face; it was neither caused or solved by his being trans. He has a unique perspective, but being trans is just one part of who he is, not the sum of it.
Even so, I wanted to get the views of trans people, so I approached The Beaumont Society, a group run for and by trans people, and showed a draft to Jane Hamlin, the President. She was incredibly patient and supportive, and gave me belief that I could at least add usefully to the growing debate.
On one level, The House on Half Moon Street is a straightforward historical crime novel, because I adore historical crime novels. But underneath that, it’s also a story about identity. Almost every character in the book has had to change to survive. They’ve aligned to the powerful forces of gender politics, class, money or ambition. Many of them have changed their names, how they dress and how they speak. That was the dramatic irony that compelled me to finish it: Leo is the least changed of all them.
Leo has simply stopped pretending to be someone else.
Alex Reeve lives in Buckinghamshire and is a university lecturer, working on a PhD. The House on Half Moon Street is his debut novel, and the first in a series of books featuring Leo Stanhope.