Meet Bridie Devine, a flame-haired, no-nonsense sleuth in Victorian London, on a mission to find a missing girl. But this is no ordinary missing child and Bridie is no ordinary woman. What starts as a mystery quickly turns into an unequivocally spellbinding tale featuring a cast of characters as enthralling and engaging as 19th-century London itself. Here, Jess Kidd discusses the unlikely friendship of Birdie and Ruby — the epic mystery-solving duo behind our October Fiction Pick, Things in Jars.
Detectives are great alone but even better when they’ve company, for every Holmes there’s a Watson, for every Poirot, a Hastings, every Tuppence needs a Tommy. Things in Jars is a story inhabited by a mystery-solving duo. I’d long wanted to write a novel set in Victorian London with a female investigator — a protagonist capable of infiltrating every layer of Victorian society, from Rookery slum to the grandest drawing room. Along came Bridie Devine. A pipe-smoking, fake-whisker wearing, grown-up orphan guttersnipe doing her own thing at a time when women were expected to retreat quietly into the home. To go against the grain in the mid-19th century took determination and sometimes invention. In the novel, Bridie passes as a lowly ribbon seller, a gentleman surgeon, a respectable widow – as the case demands. No one reads a body or a crime scene quite like Bridie Devine. But we meet her reeling from a case that’s ended tragically and with a new investigation that promises to test her to the limit. Bridie Devine may be down, but she’s not out. Into her life swaggers her new self-appointed sidekick – the dead, bare-knuckle prize-fighter, Ruby Doyle.
The pair meet in a graveyard (where else?). Bridie searches for a logical explanation for the loitering specter (Pepper’s Ghost, smoke and mirrors?). Finding none, Bridie informs the apparition that she is in possession of a scientific mind and the opinion that ghosts are nonsense. Ruby (murdered after a triumphant boxing match and destined to spend eternity in drawers and a top hat) agrees. Figment or not, the dead man at Bridie’s side becomes a very real presence in her life.
Bridie and Ruby not only share a spark, but they also, seemingly, have history. Ruby knows her name, facts about her past, but Bridie can’t remember him. Ruby strikes a deal: he’ll desist with the haunting when Bridie recollects how they know one another. In the meantime, Ruby is ever-present, heckling, provoking and tenderly watching over Bridie. Every partnership brings challenges, and Bridie and Ruby have their differences, particularly in the being alive/not alive department. The Victorian world they inhabit/haunt is one of grit and magic, crushing poverty and scientific miracles. Life is perilous and cheap, but also full of wonders, real and manufactured. London loves a spectacle, curiosities are commodities, hunted out and traded. Bridie’s latest case, the search for a missing child said to be remarkable, takes in London’s underbelly of crooked collectors, fanatical anatomists and twisted showmen. Bridie’s smog-shrouded London is one of grand landmarks and labyrinthine alleys; a terrible, glorious city where anything might be possible.
I have Bridie and Ruby to thank for some wonderful research memories: puzzling with an expert in historical tattoos over designs suited to a dead Victorian bare-knuckle fighter, discovering just how fast you can move while wearing a corset, mastering the bewildering complexities of pipe-smoking, finding inspiration in real lives lived by real people, and being reminded that love, then as now, crosses boundaries, haunts and endures.