Take away the mermaid, the side-kick ghost, the enterprising ex-orphan, and you’re left with an ordinary detective story. But where’s the fun in that?
Things in Jars, Jess Kidd’s third novel, manages to be both horrific and humorous. Set in nineteenth-century London, it’s a tale Charles Dickens would have been proud to claim as his own. Rich in its portrayal of the city’s impoverished underbelly, it follows the adventures of Bridie Devine, a pipe-smoking sleuth who has managed to rise from street urchin, to grave robber’s assistant, to mortician’s apprentice. Now, at age thirty, she’s a criminologist with her own specialty: tracking kidnap victims.
And what a quarry she’s after this time! It seems a baron obsessed with unique marine specimens has lost his most prized possession: a child so unique that a sinister nurse is bent on cashing in the prize. The characters in this story are so interesting you could write a separate novel about each of them. Ruby Doyle, a dead ex-boxer who follows Bridie around offering advice while entrancing her with his animated tattoos. Cora Butter, a seven-foot maid devoted to our heroine. Lester Lufkin, circus promoter and his snake woman Euryale. Thankfully, the author has blended them into a single narrative that raises Things in Jars above the humdrum of gumshoe yarns.
This book is not for the squeamish; Things in Jars lives up to its title as Bridie tramps through a world of anatomical repugnance and street squalor in search of a victim who subsists on a diet of snails, frogs, and newts. Our detective prevails to establish herself as a feminist role model.
Kidd leaves a couple of loose ends I can’t discuss without spoiling your experience. Those flaws, plus occasional foul language, force me to downgrade Things in Jars from five to four stars. Nevertheless, if you like exceptional writing, savory dialogue, deftly-sketched characters, and unique mysteries, this one is for you.