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The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary
Review by Gayle Surrette
Forge Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765322036
Date: 16 March 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Nellie Bly's Wikipedia Entry / Show Official Info /

Paris during the World's Fair in 1889 was a sight to behold -- the new and stridently protested Eiffel Tower, the scandalous Cancan performed on the streets, and cafés filled with anarchists, dissidents, artists, and poets... It was also a city under siege as the influenza epidemic spread among the residents while anarchists used violence and bombs to achieve their ends. And it's to Paris that Nellie Bly, the world's first female investigative reporter, travels to find a killer.

McCleary has written a book that just can't have enough superlatives attached to it. I'd heard of Nellie Bly, of course, but I hadn't really given much thought to what it must have been like for her to set an example and open the way for other women to move into journalism. McCleary gives life to this historical figure while keeping her human with all the worries, woes, joys, and frustrations of a woman of her times. She's dedicated to getting the story behind the stories and has been willing to put her life on the line to get those stories, while never forgetting for a moment that her mother is dependent upon her. Without Bly and her efforts, many of the women journalists that exist today might have had an even more difficult time moving into highly visible positions in journalism.

The novel begins with a very short history of Nellie Bly's background, but the mystery begins when Nellie has herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. This commitment was the start of Bly's career. But for us it's the start of Nellie's efforts to find a killer. While on the island, she learns that women are going missing and no one seems to care, thinking they probably died while trying to swim the river to escape.

When a young girl who had befriended Nellie disappears, she investigates and what she learns sets the stage for The Alchemy of Murder. I can't say anymore other than that along the way she travels to London and finally Paris. She meets and interacts with Oscar Wilde, Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Red Virgin among others.

The story takes some surprising twists and turns, for this is the Victorian Age, science is daily making strides in explaining the mysterious and unknown. It's a time rife with contrasts. The marvels of the World's Fair are on display while people are dying of influenza and an even more insidious disease called the Black Fever. Pasteur has been researching to find the causes and then cures. As a chemist he's laughed at by doctors and kept from the data he needs.

Police still arrest the "you-might-do" suspects even though Doyle's Sherlock Holmes highlights the role of science in police investigations. It's sometimes difficult to believe that so much was going on during the late 1880s and early 1900s. It indeed was the best of times and the worst of times -- and McCleary makes it an exciting, exhilarating time to read about.

The book is not only a great hunt for a killer but also a wonderful slice of history. Without bogging down the story, McCleary manages to impart a lot of information about Paris as well as the world of 1889, along with the historical events that brought us to this point. I found myself as fascinated with the historical information as I was drawn into the hunt for the monstrous fiend who mutilates and kills women.

If this book isn't nominated for several awards over the coming year, I'll be extremely surprised.

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