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THE FORMULA FOR MURDER is the third in Carol McCleary's excellent series of Nellie Bly books. For those new to the series, or McCleary's concept, the books are written as the first-person diaries of the (very real) crusading journalist Nellie Bly. Therefore the books immediately work on two levels - as mysteries, and in referring readers back to this extraordinary and ground-breaking woman. Having said this, THE FORMULA FOR MURDER presents the reviewer with a particular problem; very far from being rare, let alone unique, it is nonetheless insoluble. The book is a very good one, indeed it is first-class, but it is not as good as the preceding entry in the series, THE ILLUSION OF MURDER. To assert otherwise would be dishonest, but it does mean that one appears less positive than I would want to be. In fairness it should be pointed out that THE ILLUSION OF MURDER was among the best new mysteries I have read in the last five years.
These preliminaries dispensed with it is time to turn to the plot of THE FORMULA FOR MURDER. Nellie Bly has crossed the Atlantic and come to London to investigate the supposed suicide of a young friend, Hailey. Nellie is highly suspicious because she does not believe that Hailey is the kind of woman to have committed suicide. Her investigations soon embroil her in a complicated plot which moves from London to Bath and Dartmoor, and involve encounters with Oscar Wilde (who had assisted her in the first book in the series, THE ALCHEMY OF MURDER), H G Wells and Conan Doyle. One of the things which I most admire about Carol McCleary is her enormous chutzpah (a characteristic which Nellie herself possessed in spades) and this short summary should demonstrate that THE FORMULA FOR MURDER in no way falls short of its predecessors as far as that quality is concerned. To set the concluding and climactic parts of your mystery on Dartmoor and actually involve Conan Doyle in the plot is an act of calculated defiance - which I adore! In fact McCleary uses Wilde, Wells, and Doyle in different ways. Wilde is there for the colour which he provides, and also to prompt that peculiar mixture of joy and great sadness which any mention of his name must provoke. In this book the events which would lead to his downfall and appalling mistreatment are now a very real shadow. Doyle provides the opportunity for McCleary to demonstrate the aforementioned chutzpah and her comic sense.
However it is Wells who is the most important of these three 'real' characters in terms of the book's central serious concern and character development; this is Nellie's love and sex life. Once again McCleary is to be congratulated for her bravery tackling this head-on rather than ignoring the subject (which it would have been easy to do). Of course some readers are going to object on one ground or another, and it is true to say that in some senses these developments over-balance the mystery plot. In my view the internal arguments which Nellie has with herself, the external arguments she has with Wells and the eventual resolution of the matter are all convincingly imagined and realised. The frank discussion of issues such as contraception, the double standard and women's position at the time remind me of Gillian Linscott's wonderful Nell Bray series (although Nell is active a generation later). I also think that it is very important that McCleary developed the character in this way as it lays a firm foundation for future books, in what I hope will be a lengthy series, when Nell's love life can be treated more integrally without the need for this kind of initial exposition. And if nothing else this aspect of the story throws a fascinating light on H G Wells about whom I knew very little.
There is no doubt that THE FORMULA FOR MURDER, like the other books in the series, proceeds at a cracking pace and is (cliche unavoidable) is a gripping read. McCleary is a born narrator. The climax is certainly dramatic but where it lacks in comparison to THE ILLUSION OF MURDER is in its surprise or trick. As I have remarked previously this may be unfair - in the former book McCleary left me utterly stunned, something which very, very few contemporary writers have managed to do, by the trick she pulled off. Here while there is nothing shoddy or inadequate about the denouement, it lacks that 'fall off your chair with amazement factor'. But then who (since the Golden Age) has been able to write two books in a row like that? (That's not a rhetorical question - suggestions gratefully received as I would love to read them - exclude Rendell (early days), Hill and Raichev).
THE FORMULA FOR MURDER is an extremely good book. It is full of vivid and interesting characterisation, it makes the reader think about the period and the real-life people portrayed, it demonstrates once again McCleary's gift for writing a narrative which demands to be read and also her enormous chutzpah and gusto, which merge so well with those of her heroine (whose real-life feats were extraordinary). Its only real failing is that it is not as good as the preceding entry in the series - but it is almost impossible to imagine how it could have been. Read this book, but better still read all three starting at the beginning.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, October 2012
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