The Alchemist of Lost Souls (A Bianca Goddard Mystery)

Written by Mary Lawrence
Review by Valerie Adolph

London in 1544, with Henry VIII on the throne, definitely has its seedy side south of the Thames. Bianca, the alchemist’s daughter, lives there making a living selling herbal cures. As if it is not bad enough that her husband is compelled to join the army and march north while she is pregnant, now her disgraced alchemist father needs her help. He has discovered some wonderfully potent bright stones, but they have been stolen.

Meanwhile, Leadith Browne, wife of another alchemist, appears at the Dim Dragon Inn with unusually bright stones on offer to the highest bidder. She leaves the inn elated at her good fortune but later she is found dead, the stones missing. It seems likely that she swallowed them. It also seems likely that Bianca’s mother might be responsible for the death so, with the help of Cammy, a serving girl from the inn, Bianca begins to investigate.

Her inquiries centre on the Thames and the dwellings on both its north and south banks. This is a very different Tudor London from that of Henry’s court. Lawrence uses carefully researched detail to bring the miserable hovels of the poor to life as well as the comparative wealth of tradespeople. The vocabulary is rich and authentic (not a single ‘twas or forsooth), and the colorfully vivid detail of clothing and housing brings the period and its people to life.

The plot moves swiftly through the treacherous currents of both London and its river, with the supernatural never far away and a climax that is dramatic and satisfying. Lawrence presents the gritty details of everyday Tudor life in a way that might not be for the squeamish, and her characters are acutely, if uncomfortably, realistic. A satisfying and engrossing read.