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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Atria Books, 384 pages, $27

There should be a celebration and parade every time Jess Kidd releases a book. Her writing flows like the water that drips, storms, mists, runs, and rushes throughout her newest book, “Things in Jars.” Her descriptions are populated with word, character, and plot eccentricities that beg to be read over and over. Her other books are set in Ireland, but this book takes place in England, mostly in and near London. It’s still very Irish.

Bridie Devine, who does “Domestic Investigations/Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions),” is the heroine of this tale set in 1863. There are flashbacks to twenty years earlier as young (“no older than ten, no younger than eight”) Bridie is passed from home to home after arriving in England from Ireland. With each new situation, she picks up skills not often available to either high or low status children. She learns about autopsies, concoctions, the scientific method, and observation, a talent with which she was already blessed.

Now that Bridie is about thirty, she has a reputation for being able to handle difficult cases. She even assists the police, mostly her old childhood friend, Scotland Yard Detective Valentine Rose. Her most recent case comes courtesy of a private client, one who wants utter discretion and no police involvement. 

The six-year-old daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick has been kidnapped. So far there is no ransom demand, says Berwick’s emissary, Dr. William Harbin, but the baron is frantic with worry. The newly hired nurse, Mrs. Bibby, is also missing. Upon arrival at the estate, Bridie traces the course of the kidnappers and locates one of their hiding places. She comes to several astute conclusions, but still there is no rescue.

In other chapters, we become aware that Christabel, the daughter, indeed has been kidnapped by Mrs. Bibby and an accomplice. There is something unique about Christabel that will bring a fair price from interested buyers. While I won’t reveal Christabel’s specialness, I will say that snails, newts, and damp walls are involved.

Oh, and Bridie is assisted by a ghost, Ruby Doyle, a boxer who was killed in a bar fight. He popped up right before Bridie was commissioned to find Christabel, and he won’t go away. (His appearance might — might! — be occasioned by Bridie’s use of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend in her pipe.)

I could go on and on about the wonderfully luminescent and nasty characters that flit in and out of Kidd’s book. Terrible things happen. Wonderful things happen. Humorous things happen. I’ll quote one of the humorous asides. Prudhoe (of the pipe blend fame) was one of Bridie’s mentors (even though she was just a girl). Instead of going into the apothecary business like his father and his father’s father and a few more begetting generations before that, Prudhoe became a toxicologist, scientist, and medical expert for the police.

“Prudhoe has also developed several unwavering beliefs. These being: that lawyers (both for the prosecution and for the defense) are the devil’s own horned bastards, the accused are always guilty, and there are more efficacious tests for arsenic than Marsh’s but none are as beautiful.”

Kidd has treats in store throughout her book, including Bridie’s seven-foot-tall maid; Lufkin, king of the circus; and Jem, the street urchin who briefly becomes Bridie’s eyes and ears. Two of my favorites are prison guards Mr. Hoy and Mr. Scudder, sort of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern minor characters who have a rich life in their brief time upon the stage.

In the end, there was no true mystery to be solved that could actually be solved. All along you know who the villains are, even if there are suitable revelations at the end that become the aha! moments of any good mystery book. And is there anything supernatural about the story? What can I tell you? It’s Irish!

MBTB star!

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