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Book review: Eliza Mace by Sarah Burton and Jem Poster

10 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Eliza Mace by Sarah Burton and Jem Poster is published by Duckworth

Myfanwy Alexander

If there is one thing I like, it’s a sprightly heroine. And only a few pages into the novel by Sarah Burton and Jem Poster, I knew their eponymous heroine was going to deliver, which is perhaps scarcely surprising, given that they are authorities on creative writing.

Based in Victorian Radnorshire (more boxes ticked for me as we haven’t had a good Radnorshire novel since Tom Bullough’s Addlands), Eliza Mace is a well-paced and highly enjoyable romp.

There are, of course, secrets to reveal and a crime or two to solve with plenty of colour and sharp observations thrown in for good measure.


Eliza is the only child of an unhappy gentry marriage, where her mother is paralysed by social norms her father has long abandoned.

Like all girls of her class in the 1870s, Eliza is ill-informed to the point of naivety about what might be called ‘the ways of the world,’ but a part of her charm is that she is aware of her shortcomings.

Her father’s disastrous history of speculation has brought him to the brink of what used to be called ‘ruin,’ and her mother, from whose family the estate has been inherited, refuses to sell land to save him. (Quite rightly in my opinion: men are two a penny and good ground is good ground.)

The other member of the family is Eliza’s uncle, who is clearly a man with at the very least hidden aspects of his personality, if not downright secrets.

When Eliza’s father disappears, she assumes the role of detective which she undertakes with the help of the eligible young policeman, Dafydd Pritchard.

Sprightly steeliness

If you were expecting villainous servants, illegitimacy, poachers who are forced into crime by their circumstances and a young heroine who discovers within herself a steely determination she had hitherto not known that she possessed, you will not be disappointed.

The story twists and turns like a Radnorshire lane and comes to a highly satisfactory conclusion after Eliza has given full rein to her sprightly steeliness and the book’s ending leaves the reader in no doubt that Eliza Mace, like Arnie, will be back.


The remote Victorian setting creates a claustrophobia which helps increase the reader’s sympathy for Eliza. She is longing to escape and the sense of purpose which she finds in her quest for the truth about her father flows naturally from her confinement.

At points, however, I did wonder if Eliza had attitudes which were too far outside her time.

I found it impossible to believe that any gentlewoman of that era, however free a spirit would discuss her mother’s ‘monthlies’ with any man, even an uncle to whom she was close, but if authors decide to create a character who kicks so strongly against the era in which she lives, they will inevitably push her to the edge of social acceptability and beyond, inviting the reader to suspend their disbelief.


As for the stage on which this drama is set, the authors depict a countryside which is far from idyllic without ever tipping into ‘Come all ye…’ agitprop.

Social class is observed with nuance, avoiding simplistic binaries and it soon becomes clear to the reader that Eliza, set ‘above’ the people living closest to her and too poor to take part in the social life of the local gentry, is acutely lonely.

Her sister’s marriage scarcely endears Eliza to the institution, to say nothing of her parents’ unhappiness and so she enters into her friendship with Dafydd Pritchard, the young policeman without any encumbering romantic notions.

They develop a charming, though certainly not straightforward partnership and I am certain many readers will join me in hoping that when Eliza returns, Constable Pritchard returns in her wake.

And that is an accurate description of the dynamic between them; though he is far from a Lestrade-style hopeless copper, Eliza, despite her lack of experience, is the better detective of the two.

As someone who is perhaps unhealthily familiar with the history of Radnorshire, I might have wished for a little more colour in the Borderland setting, but, as someone who has frittered away many hours getting to grips with the controversies surrounding the construction on the Knighton Workhouse, I am probably not typical, though there is certainly headroom for more Radnorshire in the next novel.

I certainly hope that is not too far away because I cannot wait to hear more of the adventures of Miss Eliza Mace.

Eliza Mace by Sarah Burton and Jem Poster is published by Duckworth books and is available from all good bookshops.

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