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by Carol McCleary
Hodder & Stoughton, April 2009
565 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 0340978392

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

OK hang on to your hats! THE ALCHEMY OF MURDER purports to be a lost diary of the pioneering feminist journalist Nellie Bly which was lost until 2008. We are therefore given an editorial introduction and McCleary maintains this paratextual fiction by providing 'editorial footnotes' at various stages. The effect is somewhat spoiled by the fact that, while the vast majority of the book is in the first-hand narrative of Nellie Bly, there are some third-hand narratives interspersed (although I suppose McCleary could argue that these are the work of Bly 'filling in' scenes at which she was not present).

The story begins in Paris in 1889 where Nellie is hunting down a monstrous killer in Montmartre. We are quickly given a brief 'life and times' including an explanation of her quest; while she was engaged in her famous undercover incarceration in the New York asylum on Blackwell's Island, a friend of her's was dismembered by a doctor calling himself Blum who subsequently disappeared. He then popped up as Jack the Ripper but Nellie got to London too late to track him down. But when there are reports of a 'slasher' at work in Paris she quickly makes her way there. With the aid of Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde and Louis Pasteur she embarks on a desperate quest in which the stakes become increasingly higher.

Well, I warned you to hang on to your hats. I should start out by saying that if I have given the impression that this is a serious book I apologise. It is basically a great big romp. Let me start with the negatives. It is not particularly well-written; certainly the prose is not outstanding. The characters hardly rise above the level of stereotype. The plot is hardly surprising - though it may be outrageous. The 'history', however much detail McCleary provides, is highly conventional.

Above all there is the issue of the use of historical characters. Nellie Bly herself is an extraordinary figure. I am afraid I only really knew about her because of a reference in the West Wing (Abby Bartlett goes to dedicate a statue to her and when Jed teases her not only does he not get the sex he's waiting for, but is treated to one of Abby's wonderful polemics) but presumably she is, or certainly ought to be, a massively important national figure in the US. Having now read of some of her exploits (especially the incarceration in the asylum - her reports led to a massive outcry, investigations, and a huge sum of money being invested) I realise what an important historical figure she is. So in one sense the book has worked admirably if it intended to bring Nellie Bly to the higher level of awareness which she undoubtedly deserves. But I still have a nagging unease about doing this in the form of a romp. This applies to other 'real' characters in the book but especially to Wilde and Louise Michel - the 'red virgin of Montmartre' - Communard, anarchist and revolutionary who is caricatured here. I think there are real problems and issues with using historical figures in this way.

But having raised all these reservations, pointed out all the negatives, the fact is that I still enjoyed this book and would wish to be positive about it. Why? Because of its sheer damn chutzpah. I like a book which has a ridiculous story, lots of absurdities and a real swagger - as long as it doesn't take itself too seriously and THE ALCHEMY OF MURDER certainly doesn't do that. I am almost ashamed to admit it but yes I would like to read Nellie's next adventure, which apparently is in the pipeline. I admit it - this is a Guilty Pleasure.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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