One of the best things about my job buying new fiction for the Field Library is that, among all the bestsellers and soon-to-be-bestsellers and well reviewed fiction by famous people I buy every month, I also get to pick out some books that might be a little less well-known, a little more, shall we say, quirky. Those are the kinds of books I choose because I want to read them myself, and sometimes it’s hard to restrain myself from grabbing them as soon as they’re released, before anyone else gets a chance to read them. The most recent of those quirky fun books is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss.
Let’s see. We have Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solving a mystery. We have references to and characters from Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, we have the whole Victorian scene, we have strong female characters solving problems . . . if we added time travel (and perhaps a little Lovecraftian horror), this would be my ideal novel!
The book starts with Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr. Henry Jekyll, left an orphan after her mother’s death, facing destitution. She has to let all her servants go and even so, she’s running out of money. Realizing that there’s a reward for the capture of the infamous Edward Hyde, a figure she remembers briefly from her childhood, Mary decides to find him and get the reward, which should at least keep her household solvent for a while. To do this, she needs to consult with the world’s only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.
However, before she can do that, she discovers that her mother had been sending money to the Magdalene Sisters, who are running a house for fallen women in Whitechapel. Curious about what that could involve, she goes to the house and discovers Diana Hyde, a wild child whose manners are appalling and whose behavior has been scandalizing the nuns for so long they’re eager to hand her over to Mary, whom Diana greets as her “sister.”
In short order, they find themselves at the scene of the murder and subsequent mutilation of a prostitute in Whitechapel, which turns out to be one of a series of such murders and mutilations. There’s evidence that this murder is connected to a special society of scientists, a society to which Dr. Jekyll (and various other people) had belonged, according to papers Mary’s mother had kept for her. Investigating the secret society brings them to meet one Catherine Moreau and Justine Frankenstein, both of whom are acting as freaks in a show, and one Beatrice Rappacini, whose touch is dangerous and whose breath is poisonous, thanks to her father, and as the women team up, each bringing her unique skills to the solution of the mystery (with the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, of course), Mary discovers more things about her father and Mr. Hyde which she wishes she hadn’t learned.
Now, obviously I know, as does anyone who’s read the source material, that Dr. Jekyll never married, let alone had children, that Victor Frankenstein didn’t make a female creature for his monster (after promising to do so), and that the puma woman on the Island of Dr. Moreau didn’t survive that book’s conflagration. I’m sure Theodora Goss knows this, too, so she goes out of her way to explain how these things happened, how the stories we think we know aren’t as accurate as we believe they are. And frankly, the characters themselves are so delightful and fascinating that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and my knowledge of the source materials to go along with the story.
It’s Catherine who’s telling the story, mostly from the point of view of Mary, but the other characters interject frequently, correcting Catherine’s prose and depictions of their inner states. This may seem, in the abstract, to be a really annoying plot device, but over the course of the book it gives extra life and charm to the narrative, showing off the distinct voices and preoccupations of the characters and adding to the vividness of the story.
Can you read this and enjoy it if you know nothing about the 19th century victorian novels that provide the source material for these characters? If all you know about them is what you’ve seen in movies? Absolutely. Mary and Diana, Beatrice, Catherine and Justine give short versions of their backstories, and these are sufficient to let you know who they are and where they came from, and you should have no trouble following their adventures with only what’s within these pages.
HOWEVER, if you, like me, are a fan of the classics, if you’ve read the books from which the characters come, you will find this even more enjoyable. What a delight, for instance, to discover that the nearly unflappable Poole from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had a wife who is as practical and devoted as he was, and to meet her as a major character in this book! How much fun it is to see Renfield, of Dracula fame, staying in an asylum and collecting his “little lives.” Restoring life to Justine, the servant girl unfairly accused of murder in the original Frankenstein, just feels right (and this Justine talks and thinks the way you would expect that character to, which makes her even better). And seeing the Puma Woman, whose story was dreadful and painful to read in The Island of Dr. Moreau, not only surviving but thriving, is a real relief.
So if you’re in the mood for a rollicking Victorian adventure that shows respect to the classics without being totally bound by them, a book that easily passes the Bechdel Test, by all means take out The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. You won’t be disappointed.