It’s a good thing that Bridie Devine is “not the flinching kind.” The pipe-smoking, flame-haired detective will stare down many flinch-worthy adversaries before this tale ends.
In “Things in Jars,” her third novel, Jess Kidd trades modern times for Victorian England, a setting well suited to her charming, chilling blend of fiction and fantasy. There’s a whiff of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, with a dash of “The Night Circus” for seasoning. And, true to form, she unleashes a cast of outlandish characters, such as a boxer’s ghost with a mermaid tattoo that swims around his arm.
The game is afoot when kidnappers break into the home of the “relentless” collector Sir Edmund Berwick and make off with his daughter. He hires Bridie to find her — or does he? There’s some evidence that the missing daughter is not a child at all. Rumors abound about Bridie, too. “That she was an Irish street-rat rescued by a gentleman surgeon. … That despite her respectable appearance, (it is rumored among low company) she wears a dagger strapped to her thigh.” Her back story will take shape as the story shifts between 1863 and Bridie’s formative years 20 years earlier.
Bridie will need all of her high and low qualities to survive this caper. People from her past reappear, some to help, some to harm. A treacherous nursemaid with a limp appears to have pulled off the kidnapping, but perhaps the mastermind is an acquaintance even more diabolical. Bridie’s team includes the lovestruck boxer’s ghost and Cora, her smart-mouth 7-foot housekeeper. These sidekicks supply the heart and humor of the mystery as it moves into darker corners. Bridie finds the skeletal remains of a mother and babe in a crypt. An unknown woman’s body is found in the churchyard. Everyone, it seems, is fascinated by “things in jars.”
Victorian London comes to life in Kidd’s writing. You can feel the fog rising from the first page, and later, the formaldehyde. As the plot thickens, so does the weather. “London has never seen rain like it. And now, all over the city the streets run with water, this foul, gray-foamed downpour. As if God has emptied his washtub after boiling Satan’s inexpressibles in it.”
As she did with “Himself” and “Mr. Flood’s Last Resort,” Kidd has fashioned enjoyable, indelible characters and a plot that keeps readers guessing, smiling and maybe even flinching.
Maureen McCarthy is a former news team leader at the Star Tribune.
Things in Jars
By: Jess Kidd.
Publisher: Atria, 369 pages, $27.