I am a huge fan of Jess Kidd's writing, which is so original and distinctive that within a sentence or two you know that it simply couldn't be any other writer. This, her third novel, is set in 1863. Female detective Bridie Devine has a puzzling new case: the child of Sir Edmund Berwick has been kidnapped. But this is no ordinary child. Bridie, who must seek the stolen Christabel in a Victorian London obsessed with curiosities, is a wonderful creation, as is her housekeeper Cora Butter, and Ruby Doyle, the prize fighter in love with Bridie-who happens to be a ghost. A treat.
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.
Jess Kidd’s third novel Things in Jars could be called gothic deluxe, crammed as it is with craven doctors, unholy circus proprietors, pickled specimens, middle-of-the-night abductions, immoral scientists and violence, menace and murk. I have never read a book with so many botched medical procedures. It boasts a higher corpse count than Hamlet... It is to the author’s great credit that Things in Jars, which is far-fetched, often comic, sometimes camp, is so moving. There are deep friendships, unbreakable loyalties and bursts of impossible love, such as that which develops between Bridie and the enchanting dead pugilist. Yet as you revel in the rich, wild text you also sorrow over the vulnerability of women, children and the poor, and the devastating acts of injustice and violence that passed for ordinary life not all that long ago.
This pacy piece of Victorian crime fiction delivers chills galore: pickled babies, wicked surgeons, a head in a hatbox and other unsettling discoveries. “The baby isn’t suckling the mother’s finger, it’s gnawing it,” is a gasped pronouncement made, of course, in a crypt... If the book is reminiscent of other successes – Killing Eve meets The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock via The Essex Serpent – this is hardly Kidd’s fault: it was no doubt in gestation before these works appeared. Authors can be sensitive to literary fashions in a profound way, on-trend because they inhale and exhale the cultural mood. But ultimately a lot of this feels familiar, even as it strives to be strange, with its supporting cast of liberated circus performers, choreographed ravens and noisy parrots. Still, it is well worth the price of admission.
Kidd is a writer who’s not afraid of having fun [...] but that’s not to say that Things in Jars is a frivolous book. For all its humour and colour, and there’s plenty of both, this is a story of serious evil. The cruelty of Cristabel’s abduction is shocking, but it’s by no means the only instance of cruelty in the book. Babies are poisoned, unsuspecting patients mutilated. Set against such horror – and Kidd does not flinch in serving it up to us – Bridie’s humanity is all the more moving, but it also makes of the novel something timeless, for it’s not just in Victorian England that kindness has the power to prevail over cruelty. Macabre dealings may be the subject matter of Things in Jars, but tenderness is at the heart of it.
Kidd has written two previous lyrically inclined detective novels. The first, Himself, was set in Seventies Ireland and the second, The Hoarder, in present-day London. Things in Jars features a large cast of gargoyles fit for Dickens to applaud, a caddish villain and an intricate plot narrated through two time schemes in, respectively, the present and past tense. It is not a quick read because of the writing’s ornate intricacy, but it is an astonishingly satisfying one. To borrow the novel’s watery leitmotif, it is immersive, and although it would be telling to reveal whether or not Bridie and Ruby get it together, this reader fell deeply for them both.
This is a fantastical novel that causes the reader to wince in horror on one page and laugh out loud on the next. Kidd writes with the right amount of brevity and punch, and the beautiful prose belies the gory subject matter. At times, the comedy Kidd tries to get out of Bridie speaking to a ghost no one else can see makes the pace slacken, but this is a small imperfection in a tale that glitters with dark deeds and an even darker humour.
In 1860s London, detective Bridie Devine takes on her most challenging case when she is hired to track down Christabel Berwick, supposedly the six-year-old daughter of a baronet, who is missing, believed kidnapped. Christabel proves to be a strange creature, more escapee from Irish folklore than human child, and her kidnappers are intent on profiting from her freakishness... Although it embraces the supernatural with enthusiasm, the book is set in a recognisable version of Victorian London, summoned up with great energy and invention. Occasionally, the self-conscious oddity of it all grates, but this is an arresting, funny and well-written novel.