Things in Jars

Jess Kidd

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

With hindsight, there were clues in Jess Kidd’s last novel, The Hoarder, to where she would head with this one: the investigation of an old crime; a protagonist who could see, and talk to, saints; a roomful of medical curiosities. But Kidd still manages to surprise, summoning up a sprawling, vibrant Victorian London in which to explore her obsessions, and a heroine ready to take her place among the great Victorian sleuths.

“A small, round, upright woman of around thirty” whose trademark is “a black, feather-trimmed bonnet of a uniquely ugly design”, Bridie Devine was once a street waif, initially looked after by a low-life who supplied corpses to doctors. Her innate talent, steady nerve and compassion caught the eye of Dr John Eames, who took her under his wing as an assistant. Having lived in his house and become medically skilled, she now helps the police with some of the grislier aspects of their work, despite the Victorian aversion to women having anything to do with scientific and anatomical matters.

The latest case for the practical, pipe-smoking Bridie is the kidnapping of a young girl from the country house of Sir Edmund Berwick. Reputedly Berwick’s daughter, Christabel has been confined to an isolated wing of the house, the servants forbidden even to acknowledge her existence. She seems to resemble a mythical sea-creature more than a little girl, having a nasty, venomous bite, an uncanny affinity with water and the slimy creatures that dwell in it and the ability to stir emotions in others and awaken their buried memories.

Every good detective needs a confidante, and Kidd’s first surprise is her decision to make Bridie’s a ghost. Tattooed, clad only in drawers and top hat and boasting a fine waxed moustache, the late prizefighter Ruby Doyle encounters Bridie in the graveyard in which he is buried and, claiming that they once knew each other, thereafter sticks close by her side. As well as giving Bridie support and encouragement, the amorous boxer also provides her with an unorthodox love interest, which prompts her to contemplate the passage of the years and the lack of romance in her life.

The search for Christabel quickly turns personal, recalling a past Bridie hoped she’d left behind. But there’s no avoiding it, because this is her manor. As a child, she was helping to supply corpses to doctors when the shadow of the resurrectionists still hung over the practice. Having grown up amongst medical men, laboratories with specimens in jars are Bridie’s natural habitat, and she knows that there’s a network of eccentric physicians out there with a taste for medical oddities who would love to add Christabel to their collection.

Kidd’s London of 1863 is just as noisy, smelly and bustling as anyone could want, threaded with clandestine channels that link aristocrats and doctors with the criminal fraternity. Her skill at evoking her settings helps bring the novel to life, and the threads linking Bridie with the disappearance heighten the emotional stakes of this captivating adventure, as does her surprisingly touching relationship with the spectral Ruby Doyle.