missyWcoe4xI expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats.

Chris Hannan’s Missy stands with the best of contemporary historical fiction. His heroine, nineteen-year-old adventurer and opium head Dol McQueen (the title is opiate slang) has the sensual cynicism of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, and her tale is told in the same conversational-Victorian style.

It’s set in 1862, the civil war is seething and the gold rush is just beginning to slow down, and Dol finds a comfortable hustle in the underworld of the American West. Hannan brings this underworld to life: you can practically taste the rotgut and feel the sawdust under your boots. The plot involves a haul of prime opium and a murderous pimp called Pontius (‘When I give a girl her last chance and she bitches it, I get a basin and wash my hands of her. Then I nail her hands to the floor’) and it’s like Sarah Waters if she’d stuck to good storytelling instead of bowing to the pressure to write Literary Fiction with capitalised initials.

Hannan delivers marvellous insights (‘You know when someone you don’t like makes you feel better? You’re so swimmy with gratitude you loathe yourself’) and has the gift of summing up character in one line. A particular highlight is Dol’s alcoholic mother, jealous of her daughter’s looks, and an increasing danger to herself and others. Missy is a spectacular debut: the West has never been this wild.


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