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by Heather Redmond
Kensington Books, October 2021
336 pages
ISBN: 1496734289

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

London, 1836. The fourth installment of Heather Redmond's Charles Dickens murder mysteries THE PICKWICK MURDERS: A DICKENS OF A CRIME finds Miss Kate Hogarth, soon to be Mrs. Charles Dickens trying to exonerate Charles from a murder charge for which he has been imprisoned in the dreaded Newgate.

How did Charles Dickens end up in this predicament? Having been invited to join the arcane and exclusive Lightning Club, he follows its nautilus-shaped puzzle invitation right into a dead body, that of club leader Mr. Pickwick. Victorian London won't care if young Mr. Dickens dies in Newgate or on the scaffold, because what's one rookie small-time journalist, more or less? Luckily, to Kate, he means something more.

Fans of Dickens will have fun catching allusions that suggest that the mystery in which Dickens is involved informs his later works. For instance, when Charles, imprisoned in dreaded Newgate, receives visitors, he exclaims that he is "returned to life," just like a certain prisoner who appears in Dickens's 1859 novel A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Much of the Pickwick Club is present, and not in such harmlessly fun form as in the original.

However, THE PICKWICK MURDERS is no mere romp. Kate insists that as she loves Charles and is about to marry him, she must risk everything to save his life. Helping her out is Charles's brother, Fred, who is in many ways a better friend to her than Charles is. As her younger sister Mary reminds her, Charles likes the women of his family to maintain impeccable "appearances." This does not bode well for intellectually curious, street-smart Kate. Nor does her anxiety about Charles's self-isolation when he is "huddled over pages." She also suspects that if he were to achieve his desperately sought literary fame, it will be at a terrible cost to her. "If he became as celebrated as Lord Byron, where would that leave her?" Kate wonders. "Great men often did not have happy home lives." Will the risks she takes for him turn out to be worth the dangers she eagerly braves?

Indeed, that is the real mystery at the heart of this book. While THE PICKWICK MURDERS is a cozy, meant to be heartwarming, wry, and safe, with a spunky heroine, it is difficult not to see the future Mrs. Charles Dickens moving inexorably towards real danger and tragedy. Many years after the events of THE PICKWICK MURDERS, the real Charles Dickens attempted to have his wife Catherine (née Hogarth) committed to a madhouse and prevented from seeing their ten children -- or the outside world.

Catherine Hogarth Dickens was not mad, not even according to the most respected and misogynist of Victorian medical authorities. Charles had simply fallen out of love with her, in love with a seventeen-year-old wannabe actress, Ellen Ternan. Kate seemed an inconvenience to him. That he failed to have her committed is the only extraordinary aspect of this moment in his biography.

Is Redmond's Kate Hogarth heading towards this peril? Does she see it foreshadowed in the fates of other characters whom she encounters in the metropolitan labyrinth? Or does she, and this series, exist in an alternate universe in which her marriage will not imperil her freedom? Maybe further installments will solve that mystery.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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