A thrilling mystery plot, a Georgian London setting and Black history; there is a fabulous blend of entertainment and education contained within the gorgeous covers of this book! Featuring real historical characters but in a fictionalised story, the adventures of Belle (or Dido Elizabeth Belle) and her best friend Lizzie Sancho will grip the attention of fans of historical mystery fiction.
Bell’s voice lights up the pages as she swiftly recounts her backstory in the opening chapter. Born “out-of-wedlock” to Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy Captain, and Maria Belle, a young African woman, she has been entrusted to the care of her aristocratic Aunt Betty and Uncle William. She lives with them in the luxurious surroundings of Kenwood House, where Uncle William is the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, and has recently been responsible for the “Somerset Ruling” which states that no individual can be forced to leave England and be sent to work on as a slave on a sugar plantation. She has had the privileged upbringing of an upper class young lady and is clearly a valued member of the family, despite the malicious London gossip. This element of the story is based on historical fact.
Belle’s best friend Lizzie is the daughter of the owners of Sancho’s Tea Shop, a popular café and literary salon in Westminster, again another historical figure. She has been brought up amongst the revolutionary thinkers who are fighting for the emancipation of African people, she is fearless, compulsive and rather more direct than Belle. Despite their different domestic circumstances, together they make a formidable team. Their complementary skills are put to good use in piecing together the clues to solve the dual mysteries of the audacious theft of the Mansfield-Sancho portrait and an insidious case of poisoning. As readers race through the short, pacy chapters, they are provided with a wealth of historical detail on the famous artists of the day, the origins of the Royal Academy and the outrageous trend for “power” portraits. One plot line involves greedy politicians, doing whatever they can to ensure that their access to wealth is not put at risk by individuals who wish to promote equality and dignity for all; I suspect that many bright youngsters will be able to spot some parallels with modern day politics.
I admire the way that J.T. Williams has shown that Black history in England did not start with the Windrush generation, and that she has featured individuals of African descent as the main protagonists in a cleverly crafted historical mystery. The illustrations by Simone Douglas are wonderful and very apt in an MG novel in which art features so heavily. I highly recommend Portraits and Poison to anyone of 9+ who might have previously enjoyed The Sinclair‘s Mysteries, the Jane Austen Investigates books or the Murder Most Unladylike series.