London, 1806 and a woman of color protagonist in new mystery novel 'Murder in Westminster'

Atlanta-based author Vanessa Riley's new mystery novel 'Murder in Westminster' tells the gripping story of a woman of color protagonist in 1806 London. (Courtesy of Vanessa Riley)

The year is 1806, and the setting is London. Lady Worthing is the protagonist, a woman of high social status who wants to use her privilege for good; “to be of service,” as she explains. Abigail Worthing is of mixed race – half-Jamaican, half-Scottish – and through her character, we learn about life as a person of color in Regency-era London, in the novel “Murder in Westminster” by the Atlanta-based author Vanessa Riley.  

The author joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about her gripping mystery and how it embraces the complex racial reality of Regency Britain.

Interview highlights:

A glimpse into a little-explored aspect of London’s diverse 19th century:

“This particular time, in 1806, is pure chaos in London,” said Riley. “You’ve got all this turmoil, and then you throw in this racial aspect. Because in all regards, Britain is somewhat leading the world in mobility of diverse populations. There’s 10 to 20,000 free Blacks living in London. They’re in the port cities, they’re making a living, and they are beginning to get into the burgeoning middle class. If you’re a third son, or someone looking for a wealthy wife, they are now an option. Or if you’ve sent your boys to the Caribbean to manage those plantations, they’re getting into some business too. And so now you have these mixed race populations that are coming to London and Scotland and Ireland for education, so you have this complete mix, and you don’t see this really talked about in the literature, and to me, that’s a shame.”

“When you look at the aristocracy, there are more people of color within those ranks than one would first imagine. We are finding now that names or color have been removed from the record. They begin to refer to these family members as ‘having tans’ or ‘Spanish descent,’ et cetera,” Riley explained. “If you look at the Kingdom of Haiti, that happens, actually literally starts in 1811; you have rich dukes. You have princes. You have ‘contes,’ instead of earls, that are recognized on the world stage with their wealth, with their power… There’s this intermingling within the royals that can be captured, that you can get in some aspects of ‘Bridgerton’-like atmosphere, and be very much on the record of what happened during these timeframes.”

How Abigail Worthington’s “second sight” plays into the mystery:

“Abigail – I’ve intentionally, after looking at the migration, particularly the Scots and the Irish in the West, from running plantations to doing exploration – I wanted to give her that heritage. So she’s part Scottish. Her father’s Scottish, her mother is from Jamaica, and those two populations actually have this thing called ‘second sight,’ Riley said. “So if you’ve ever gone someplace and you’re like, ‘I’ve been here before,’ or you… kind of know things in advance.”

She continued, “Some people call it ‘coincidence,’ et cetera. This beautiful second sight, it gives an ability for somebody set in 1806, where you don’t necessarily have all the wonderful fingerprint technology… you definitely don’t have any DNA… to be able to lean into these inferences to add something to the story, I think, is a fun thing. And once again, it’s this unification of two populations that you would think are very different, [but] are actually very similar.”

Setting the scene for an abolitionist’s entanglement in a murder scandal:

“Abby is desperately trying to get the movement started. She understands she’s got privilege. She’s not like everybody else. She has a title, she has privilege, she has money, so she wants to get it started. So she and her cousin are going to sneak out of the theater to go to a secret meeting… She doesn’t wanna draw attention to them because right now, the press is still the press,” recounted Riley. “She thinks she can sneak out of the Drury Lane Theater. She thinks she’s being followed, whatnot… The minute that she hears that her sister wants to meet with her, she decides not to go to the abolition meeting. She heads back to her house on Queen Street, and lo and behold, that’s where she walks into the first murder.”

Vanessa Riley’s “Murder in Westminster” is out now and available to purchase. More on the book, and links to buy from indie and major booksellers, can be found at