And Then I Read: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Theodora Goss

Cover illustration © Kate Forrester.

Victorian metafiction gathering figures from 19th century science fiction, horror and fantasy in London to solve mysteries and fight crime. Sound familiar? One can certainly suspect the inspiration was Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, but this book takes the idea in a different direction, uses mostly different characters, and is quite well written, capturing an authentic period feel, bringing the characters to life admirably, and keeping the plot exciting and the suspense high. There’s another main difference: the team is all women. One more unique element to the telling: though we meet the main characters one by one, we learn early on that one of them is writing the story, while the others make running comments throughout the book, often telling the author how she got it wrong. This is a bit confusing at first, but once you get it, the conceit adds the flavor of other viewpoints.

We begin with Mary Jekyll, daughter of a title character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde.” Mary has just buried her mother, and discovered that she is nearly penniless, and must lay off most of her staff, and find some kind of paying work, for which she has no training. Only her housekeeper, Mrs. Poole stays on to help Mary, even with little or no pay. Papers left by her mother lead Mary to consult with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, whose adventures she’s read about, concerning her father’s death and the mysterious Mr. Hyde. Before long she’s swept into an investigation of the Whitechapel murders that we know as the work of Jack the Ripper, but in this story they may have a different origin. Part of the investigation leads Mary to a girl named Diana Hyde, who claims to be her sister, and before she can object, Diana is put in Mary’s care and sent home with her.

Further investigations and adventures add to the household Catherine Moreau, the “daughter” of Dr. Moreau in the H.G. Wells novel (actually his most successful creation), Beatrice Rappaccini, from Hawthorne’s story of a poisonous girl, and Justine, the woman created by Victor Frankenstein to be his creature’s mate. Together they unravel the connections between all their forebears, a secret society devoted to experimenting on and with women. Opposing them are several more familiar fictional characters, including the madman Renfield from Stoker’s “Dracula.”

This was an excellent read, and did not feel at all derivative of LOEG except in the bare concept. The author even plays with this a bit by introducing Mina Murray at the end of the book through a letter. I understand a sequel is coming, and I will be delighted to read it!

Highly recommended. Thanks to Mike Mignola for pointing the way to this fine book.

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