This seems to be the era of the rise of the heroine. I’ve commented recently that many of the stories we know with male leads are being retold with women as their main characters. Whilst I’m all for strong female leads, retelling the same story and just making the roles female does little for me. I am however interested in true and original stories where women take the lead part, sometimes these have been forgotten by history. It’s nice to see or read something original and feminist.
This was perhaps why I was attracted to this month’s second book review. Its, ‘Things in Jars’ by Jess Kidd, published by Canongate ( http://www.canongate.co.uk ) in paperback in January. The back-cover blurb starts, ‘London 1863. A strange puzzle has reached Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age’ My interest was immediately caught. A Victorian detective mystery and a female detective. What’s not to like?
A fan of historical crime fiction since reading Wilkie Collins, ‘The Woman in White’ for my O levels, I was keen to compare it to the likes of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs wartime story, The American Agent and to a recent favourite, The way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry which was set in Victorian Edinburgh in the competitive and deadly world of surgical and anaesthesia discoveries.
Our heroine, Bridie is an orphan child, adopted initially by a resurrection man, supplying bodies to the medical schools and private surgeons. She is then ‘purchased’ by Dr Eames a Dr and surgeon, who notices her quick wits, strong stomach and capable hands. She enjoys a happy period in his household, blighted only by the menacing presence of his son Gideon. When it becomes unsafe for her to remain there, Bridie is moved to the care of Mr Prudhoe, an apothecary and pathologist. Now an independent woman, Bridie spends her time investigating curious deaths for her friend, Inspector Valentine Rose. Whilst investigating two bodies found walled in a church crypt, one of whom doesn’t look entirely human, Bridie is called upon to find a missing girl. This child too, is otherworldly. A thing of beauty and terror that attracts the interest of collectors of curiosities. Can Bridie find her and solve the mystery before its too late?
This book has an exceptional cast of characters. Some reviewers compared it to Dickens and I can see the similarity, the strange descriptive names, in the caricatures. However, I was reminded more of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels. That’s probably because his characters were a constant revelation of character observation and satirical humour to me until Pratchett’s untimely death in 2015.Whilst this is set in a real place and time, the use of fable, ghosts and the paranormal, made it feel slightly fantastical. Bridie is a real tour de force of a heroine. Clever, witty, attractive, without being too perfect and thus annoying. I loved the addition of Cora, the seven foot tall ex circus exhibit and now housemaid, who acts as Bridie’s stalwart guardian and assistant.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews the current public appetite for all things fable and folklore. This book has them in spades but sprinkled with Bridie’s medical mind and good sense throughout. It’s a great blend. Sometimes we don’t need everything we read, especially in fiction to be based on established truths. A bit of escapism from this world into another time or dimension is great. You can create very human stories with inhuman characters.
This is English author Jess Kidd’s (www.Jesskidd.com) third novel. She has previously published ‘Himself’ (2018), a story of man searching for the identity of the mother who abandoned him and ‘The Hoarder’(2018) – titled as ‘Mr Flood’s Last Resort’(US) a ghost story, cum thriller, that I had previously read and loved. Jess Kidd is originally from Ireland, which is probably why so many of her characters and stories have Irish origins. Both her previous books were shortlisted for multiple Irish literary awards and were BBC radio 2 book club selections, she currently developing her own tv projects with UK and international production companies and is writing a children’s book.
I’d recommend this book to anyone with interest in history, medicine, crime, things paranormal and scientific and things that are a just little bit quirky. ‘Things in Jars’ is a great addition to anyone’s collection.