A strange, sharp-toothed child, bleached of colour and trailing the scent of the sea. Sinister kidnappers. The ominous underbelly of London’s class of collectors, where even the most particular tastes can be indulged. A seven-foot-tall housemaid. And a dandyish pugilist ghost. In my first encounter with Jess Kidd’s writing, I was taken by the hand and led deep into a deliciously disturbing story, told in prose that sparkles with the cadences of an Irish brogue. At its heart there is Bridie Devine, a formidably down-to-earth woman who makes a speciality of taking on unusual mysteries – and who is about to encounter a case which will push her expertise to its limits, as well as forcing her to face up to a dark period of her own past. Blending Victorian Gothic with a roistering tale of London’s underworld, this is a deeply enjoyable adventure.
Bridie Devine meets Ruby Doyle in a graveyard. Three things immediately catch her eye: first, he is naked, save for his drawers, shoes and a top hat. Second, he is covered in moving tattoos. Third, he is transparent. It’s inconvenient, because Bridie doesn’t believe in ghosts and yet here is a thoroughly bona fide spectre who not only believes in her, but seems to have appointed himself her escort. She is in the graveyard for professional reasons, having been called to investigate the strange discovery of two bodies walled up inside a crypt – a mother and baby, the latter with terrifyingly sharp teeth. Alas, there’s scarcely time for Bridie to make her deductions before she’s whisked away by the disapproving curate – but her investigations will prove helpful. For soon, she receives a new offer of work from Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, a gentleman whose six-year-old daughter Christabel has gone missing.
Missing children are a staple for Bridie, even if she can’t shake the guilt of her last job, where she failed to find the poor little mite in time. There are all sorts of places a child can be whisked off to in London, let alone the rest of the country, and even a simple case can be difficult. But she swiftly becomes aware that this isn’t a simple case. Why do none of Sir Edmund’s servants know about his child, having been barred from the wing in which she’s been brought up? Is it just a tragic coincidence that both his wife and Christabel’s first nurse have died by drowning? And why does the child’s nursery smell of the sea, infested with damp and with dank, creeping creatures? Why has she been kept in a cage? Bridie hopes that Myrtle, the young daughter of Dr Harbin (Sir Edmund’s factotum), might have some answers, since Sir Edmund himself seems obstructive. But soon something happens which derails her investigations and opens a window onto a part of Bridie’s own history that she’d rather have forgotten.
In parallel with Bridie’s modern case, we learn about her childhood. The daughter of a streetwise Irish resurrectionist, she is taken in by the kindly Dr Eames, who admires her intellectual talents and her flair for dissection. For a while it seems that young Bridie might be able to enjoy a glittering career – or at least, as glittering as is possible for a woman, until she’s married off to an appropriate young surgeon. Then evil intervenes, in the shape of Dr Eames’s son Gideon: a young man with few scruples, a definite streak of cruelty, and a gift for getting his own way at the expense of anyone who stands in his path. All this happened years ago, but Bridie begins to realise that there are some links between the household of Dr Eames – a collector of curiosities and natural wonders – and that of Sir Edmund. What is really going on here? And is she really seeking out Sir Edmund’s only beloved child, or is Christabel a prized part of his collection?
The book is beautifully written, with a lyrical jaunt to the prose, a nod to Irish mythology, and a cast full of colourful outsiders. At their heart, Bridie is a wonderful creation: flame-haired yet circumspect, fiercely loyal, brave as a tiger when needed and yet perhaps a little shy of her own feelings. Other favourites include Cora – whose myriad charms surely deserve more of a backstory than they receive here (are there other novels about Bridie?) – and Prudhoe, the tobacconist-apothecary who perches in his windmill on Brixton Hill while his rosy wife collects fosterlings below. All the characters, in fact, burst off the page with such an exuberance of life that you get the feeling you’re only glimpsing part of their stories, and perhaps not the most dramatic parts. I know Kidd has written two other novels, The Hoarder and Himself, but neither of these seem to be connected to Things in Jars. Instead, we’re left as readers with a tantalising sense of the story carrying on without us. I won’t say that the plot is entirely without its questions and holes, but that doesn’t distract from what is overall a gloriously rompish Gothic tale.
We’re being spoiled at the moment for eerie Victorian tales with a hint of the fantastical. Most recently I’ve read The Binding, but there’s also Once Upon a River, not to mention the usual suspect, The Essex Serpent. Perhaps there’s a hint here too of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, while Bridie’s gritty home district of St Giles reminded me of a slightly earlier fictional visit to the same part of London in Slammerkin. Things in Jars is a worthy addition to this company and I’m now itching to read the rest of Kidd’s work, even if it won’t throw any more light on the delightful Bridie and her world. But maybe there’s hope that this unusual detective will crop up again with more adventures in the future?
P.S. Doesn’t Jess Kidd look absolutely perfect? She actually looks slightly like I imagined Bridie.