The Alchemy of Murder
Set in Paris during the Exposition of 1889, this historical crime novel takes the well-known American journalist Nellie Bly as its heroine, and brings in all the names of the time—Oscar Wilde, Louis Pasteur, Jules Verne, Toulouse Lautrec, Guy de Maupassant, etc., etc.
I am sure McCleary has done her homework, and all these people were in Paris in 1889, but were they really all likely to meet? I realise there has to be an element of suspension of disbelief, but I personally dislike novels that seem to need to bring in famous people of the time, in order to—what? Give a flavour of the times? Show the author has done her research? Give a reason for reading the book, to see how many famous people you can spot? Or just for the fun of it?
That said, this is an interesting example of the subgenre, with an editorial preamble, footnotes, and a postscript advertising the next novel in the series, set during Bly’s round-the-world trip. This novel, however, describes her early life and her ten days undercover at the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York (true event), where Nellie discovers that a man, posing as a doctor, is murdering some of the inmates (presumably not true). She follows him to Paris where she enlists the aid of Jules Verne who introduces her to Pasteur, who is trying to uncover both the reason for the spread of a disease killing the poor of Paris and exactly what the disease is.
Jumping between Nellie’s first-person, present-tense account, and other third-person accounts, often told in the past tense, this novel has a feisty heroine, an intriguing plot, and shows the reader something of 19th-century Paris.