Set in the 18th century, The Lady in the Cellar is a gripping story based on real-life events following the discovery of a woman’s body in the basement of a reputable boarding house in London.
When the novel opens, in May 1879, a woman’s body is found in a coal cellar of a basement of a boarding house on number 4 Euston Square. The boarding house belongs to Severin Bastendoff, a bamboo cabinet maker who runs the lodge with his wife Mary and several employees. This disturbing discovery raises questions and there are speculations surrounding her death.
Who is she? How did she get there? How did she die? Was she strangled? Did she commit suicide?
Inspector Charles Hagen of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate this gruesome death. The police attempt to identify the victim by tracing her dental history. Their leads are promising when an orthodontist near Euston Square tells them that a female client had come in to get new dentures and he had taken a cast of her mouth and remaining teeth. He says the woman never returned for the dentures but he kept the cast. Surprisingly, the cast matches the victim’s teeth.
Shortly afterwards, an elderly gentleman, Edward Hacker finally comes forward and relays his concerns to the police after reading about the Euston Square mystery in the papers. He identifies the victim as his sister, Matilda Hacker, whom he has not heard from in two years. It appears some of Matilda’s personal effects are missing, in particular, a gold watch, which Edward claims is a family heirloom. Hagen follows the trail of the gold watch and it leads him to a pawnbroker, who runs a pawnshop in Euston Square. The pawnshop owner identifies a Hannah Dobbs as the person who pawned the gold watch.
We soon come to learn that Hannah Dobbs once worked as a maid in the boarding house but was discharged on account of stealing from the lodgers. She’s currently serving a prison sentence in London for petty theft. The inspector also gathers evidence that puts Hannah Dobbs in the lodge at the same time, where the victim once stayed while in London.
Why did Hannah pawn Matilda’s gold watch? More important, why did she pawn the watch under the name of one of Severin’s daughters?
Inspector Hagen gathers more evidence that proves that Matilda was murdered, and this raises more questions: Who killed Matilda? Was it the maid? Was it the owner of the lodge or one of his brothers? Or maybe an employee? Was it a fellow lodger? How come the occupants of the boarding house have no idea there was a decomposing body in the cellar for two years?
As the story progresses, we get some insight into the history of boarding houses in the 18th century and how they were run, citing a few incidents that occurred between lodge owners and their tenants. The reader also learns about Matilda Hacker’s background: a rambunctious and wealthy lady in her mid-60s and a native of Canterbury who moved to London following her sister’s death, how she finally took up residence at the lodge on number 4 Euston Square, and the events leading to when she was last seen in the boarding house.
Hannah, now a prime suspect in the murder of Matilda Hacker has been arrested and is put on trial. During the court proceedings, witnesses are called to the stand to give an account of any evidence that might shed some light into the death of Matilda Hacker. Severin and his wife, Mary are also called to the stand.
There are gaps and inconsistencies in their testimony: Mary claims she has no idea who the victim is and has no recollection of seeing any woman who matches the victim’s description in her boarding house. Severin goes on to recall one or two incidents where he saw a drunk woman who stumbled on the footsteps of his home but he sent the woman away. The reader gathers more about the case from the courtroom scenes and snippets from the Press.
In the succeeding chapters, the reader gets a glimpse into Severin’s personal life: a native of Luxembourg who moved to London with his sister and his brother-in-law, his foray into furniture making, his thriving business which he runs with his brothers, how he met his wife, Mary Pearce in London, and finally acquiring the lodge from its previous owner, a sculptor named Mr. Milnes.
From his backstory, the reader can surmise everything about Severin Bastendorrf; a decent family man who works hard to provide for his wife and four children. Wonderful isn’t it? Well, no it isn’t, because under this veneer of modesty lies something very dark.
As trial finally comes to an end, Hannah is acquitted and the story takes an unexpected turn.
Following her release, Hannah returns to her home in Bideford, Devonshire. The reader learns about her background: her birthplace, her family, her dreams and aspirations, and circumstances leading to her working as a maid in the boarding house on 4 Euston Square.
Back in Scotland Yard, the investigating officer, Inspector Hagen is not satisfied with the court ruling and tries to gather more evidence for a retrial. He even offers £100 to anyone who would come forward with any relevant information that could be used to convict Hannah.
But Hannah Dobbs makes a preemptive move that shocks everyone. With the help of a ghostwriter, she shares a chilling account of what really happened to Matilda Hacker in number 4 Euston Square. In her tell-all memoir, she also divulges some bizarre incidents that occurred during her stay in the lodge, revealing some dark secrets about the occupants of the boarding house on number 4 Euston Square, including her clandestine meetings with one of the brothers, and providing fresh new insights into their behavior. But are her stories entirely true?
To say more would be giving away spoilers.
The Lady in the Cellar is a blend of history and historical crime steeped in mystery. I enjoyed reading this book and had a hard time putting it down. There are so many twists and turns and even the aftermath of this case was shocking.
I admire McKay’s work and the amount of research he has undertaken in writing The Lady in the Cellar. This is my first book by the author and I will definitely read more from him. If you like true crime mysteries set in this era—even if this isn’t your genre of choice—give this book a try. You will not be disappointed.
- Pages: 320
- Publisher: White Lion Publishing (30 October 2018)