Source: Review Copy
Publication: 4th April 2019 from Canongate Books
London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.
As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.
Things in Jars is an enchanting Victorian detective novel that explores what it is to be human in inhumane times.
Bridie Divine is the finest female detective of her age. We know this because her business card tells us so, along with assuring us of her discretion and advising of her ability to also deal with minor surgical matters, especially boils, warts and extractions. It is clear then, that Bridie Devine is gifted.
When we meet her she is in retreat, wounded by her failure in a previous investigation and certain that this failure is all anyone is talking about. She is a small thing, pipe smoking with bright red hair half covered by a widow’s cap and a kind of casual dress that is paired with stout, shiny boots.
She is assisted in her investigations by Cora, her seven foot tall housemaid, whose romantic adventures we will later come to treasure.
Early on in the novel she encounters the ghost of Ruby Doyle, a world famous tattooed boxer whose epitaph is that “He did not level a man who did not need levelling”. While Doyle clearly knows Bridget, she does not recognise him, yet there is such a spark between them that surely they must have known each other before? Ruby is a jaunty sort on the face of it; his body is full of wriggling, tattoos, and he keeps watch over Bridget, especially when she isn’t looking.
We are in Victorian England, London for the most part, full of poverty, rife with disease, rampant with crime and with stinking streets. This is a time of aristocratic surgeons with little enough medical training and too much experimentation; a time when anatomy collectors can keep treasures in jars and make a profit from them.
Bridie is summoned to the home of Sir Edmund Berwick who hires her to find his kidnapped 6 year old daughter, Christabel. It’s clear from the beginning that Christabel is no ordinary child; she has been kept cooped up in a wing of the house that none are allowed to enter, and we learn that she can play with your memories, her eyes though glaucoma like can see into you and her small pike like teeth can wreak havoc.
Sir Edmund wants Christabel found without anyone knowing she was ever gone. So Bridie, determined she will not fail like the last time, sets off to ensure that this child will be saved. With a cast of completely fabulous Dickensian style characters, Jess Kidd treats us to a heart wrenching tale of the truly evil beings in this world fighting it out with the forces of good, with a little help from those who can straddle both sides of the divide.
Moving through two time frames – Bridie’s past and the present day, Kidd weaves a spellbinding tale; circuses, anatomists, medicine and Irish folklore all come together with gothic overtones to produce a beautifully descriptive, sharp and often witty story that lingers in the mind and touches the heart.
This is beautiful, lyrical prose with stylised descriptive passages that are enchanting if also sometimes alarming.
Verdict: Fabulous, rich and bold story telling told exceptionally well. I hope for more investigations from Bridie Devine.
Jess Kidd is the author of Himself and The Hoarder, also titled Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (U.S.), winner of the 2016 Costa Short Story Award. Jess’ debut novel, Himself, was published by Canongate in October 2016. The Hoarder, her second novel, hit the shelves in February 2018. Jess’s third book Things in Jars is out on 4 April 2019. She is also currently developing her own original TV projects with leading UK and international TV producers and is writing a children’s book and a novella.