Things in Jars

Written by Jess Kidd
Review by Bethany Latham

Red-haired, sharp-witted Bridie Devine is an interesting woman; she’s been a lot of things in her life, the latest of which is a detective, of sorts. Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick enlists her to search for his six-year-old daughter, Christabel, who has disappeared from his estate. Berwick is not forthcoming, but Bridie quickly realizes that there is much about the case, and Christabel, that is far from ordinary. The case is complicated by a connection to Bridie’s past as well as Bridie’s companion – prizefighter Ruby Doyle. Doyle just happens to be newly dead, a spirit encountered in a graveyard; he insists that Bridie knows him…even if she can’t remember any connection, or admit that what she’s seeing is real.

This book is difficult to pigeonhole – is there such a thing as an Irish magical realist mystery? Equal parts sleuthing and fairytale, it is uniformly engaging. Kidd’s accomplished literary style is darkness pierced by shafts of sunlit humor. The novel has a Dickensian feel due not only to its Victorian setting, but also the characterization, which excels in larger-than-life sympathetic characters and evoking the very worst of humanity for the villains. All are seen through a whimsical lens. The fairytale element – the merrow – is approached in fascinating manner: a combination of beauty and horror, it is the mermaid myth with a Tim Burtonesque flair. Atmosphere is skillfully crafted and fully immersive, from London’s underbelly to its medical theatres to the specimen collections in the homes of its learned, wealthy citizens (the “things in jars” of the title). The result is a thoroughly imaginative novel that is an unmitigated pleasure to read.