Bridie Devine, a flame-haired, no-nonsense sleuth in Victorian London, is a on 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. Written with breathtakingly beautiful descriptions, this adventurous novel is not to be missed.
“Miraculous and thrilling...A few pages in and I was determined to read every word Jess Kidd has ever written.” —Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Once Upon a River
“An impossible wonder: a book for everyone, and yet somehow a book just for you...A sumptuous tour of Victorian London, resurrected here with a vigor and vibrancy to rival The Crimson Petal and the White...Utterly magical.”—A.J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“A perfect mix of hilarity, the macabre, and a touch of romance, Things in Jars is ridiculously entertaining, all as it sneaks up and makes you feel things...Simply: Jess Kidd is so good it isn’t fair.” —Erika Swyler, bestselling author of The Book of Speculation and Light from Other Stars
In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.
Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
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As pale as a grave grub she’s an eyeful.
She looks up at him, startled, from the bed. Her pale eyes flitting fishy: intruder—lantern—door—intruder. As if she’s trying to work out how they all connect, with her eyes cauled and clouded.
Is she blind?
No. She sees him all right; he knows that she sees him. Now her eyes are following him as he steals nearer.
She’s more than pretty. She’s a churchyard angel, a marble carving, with her ivory curls and her pale, pale stony eyes. But not stone—brightening pearl, oh soft hued!
He could touch her: stroke her cheek, hold the wee point of her chin, wind her white curls around his finger.
Her lips are beginning to move, pouting and posturing, as if she’s working up to something, as if she’s working up to sound.
Without further thought he puts his hand over her mouth, his skin dark against hers in the lantern light. She frowns and her feet beat an angry tattoo despite the restraints and the coverlet is off. She has two legs, like a girl. Two thin white legs and two thin white arms and not much else in between.
Then she stops and lies still, panting.
The touch of her: she is like nothing in nature. Skin waxy and damp, breath cold: an unnatural coldness, like a corpse living.
And that smell again, stronger now, the sharp salt of the open ocean, an inky seaweed tang.
She fixes him with her pearly eyes. He feels the slick nubs of her teeth and the quick, wet probe of her tongue on his hand.
The man fancies that his head is opening like an easy oyster, the child is tapping and probing, her fingers are inside his mind. Touching, teasing the quivering insides. She is dabbling and grabbing as with a jar of minnows, splashing and peering as with a rock pool. She hooks a memory with her little finger and drags it out, and then another and another. One by one the child finds them, his memories. She cups them in her palm, shimmering, each a perfect tear.
A boy slips on wet cobbles, himself, following a cart with a potato in his hand.
A woman turns in a doorway with the sun on her hair, oh, his brother’s wife!
A four-day-old foal stands in a green field, a pure white flash on its lovely nose.
The child tips her palm and watches the tears roll away.
Panic floods the man. Something swells in him—a pure and compelling disgust, a strong sudden urge to finish this creature off. To throttle her, stove in her face, snap her neck as cleanly as a young rabbit’s.
A voice inside him, the lisping voice of a child, mocks him. Isn’t he the most ruthless of bastards, wouldn’t he smother his own mother without a care? Hasn’t he done all things, terrible things, not stinted on the things he’s done? And here he is frightened to grant the kindest of mercies.
The man looks at the child in dismay and the child looks back at him.
He loosens his grip on her and takes out his knife.
A lantern dips and flares in the doorway and here’s the nurse. An ex-convict with a few years on her and a lame leg, clean of garb but not of mouth, used to bad business. Likes it, even. The others behind like her personal guard—two men, neckerchiefs up around their faces. Odd birds; elbows tucked in, heads swiveling, light-stepping, listening, blinking. With every step they expect an ambush.
“Don’t touch her,” the nurse says to him. “Get away from her.”
The man, looking up, hesitates, and the child bites him, a nip of surprising sharpness. He pulls his hand away in surprise and sees a line of puncture holes, small but deep.
The nurse pushes past him to the side of the bed, glancing at his hand. “You’ll regret that, my tulip.”
She makes a show of pulling on fine chain-mail gloves and unhooks the restraints that hold the child to the bed, dressing her in a harness of strong material, one limb at a time, buckling the child’s arms across her chest, lashing her legs together. The child lunges, open mawed.
The man stands dazed, flexing his hand. Red lines track from palm to wrist to elbow, the teeth marks turn mulberry, then black. He twists his forearm and presses his skin. Sweat beading on his forehead, his lip. What kind of child bites like this, like a rat? He imagines her venom—he feels it—coursing through him, from arm to heart, lungs to bowels, fingertips to feet. A blistering poison spreads, a sudden fire burning itself out as it travels. Then the lines fade and the marks dull to no more than pinpricks.
All the time the creature watches him, her eyes darkening—a trick of the lamplight, surely! Two eyes of polished jet, their surfaces flat, so strangely flat.
The nurse is speaking low, standing back to direct. “Roll her, bag her, make haste, watch her mouth.”
They wrap the child in canvas, a staysail to make a hammock of sorts.
The man, manipulating his arm, examining the pinpricks, suddenly finds himself beyond words. He makes a sound, a vowel sound, followed by a string of gargled consonants. He drops to his knees, like one devotional, and falls backward onto the hearthrug. He would scream if he could, but he can only reach out. He lies gasping like a landed catch.
From the floor he watches the two men lift the bundle between them. They move with deliberation, as if underwater.
The nurse limps over, lantern in hand, and looks down at the man. Her diagnosis: he is in a bad way, face as gray as his county crop. Not old but already life-waned—and now this.
He begins to sob.
The nurse could sob, too, for the loss of a good thief, the kind who’d abstract the teeth from your head without the opening of your mouth.
She kneels with difficulty. “Close your eyes, lad,” she whispers. “It will help me no end.”
Trussed in a canvas hammock she’s no weight. But the two men would carry a far heavier burden with greater ease. Of course they’d humored the nurse, heard her stories in the tavern with a few inside them. But they see it now, in the child, as she said they would: all kinds of wrong.
What of the man fallen? They balked to touch him after. The carrying of him would be worse than the leaving of him and they feel the leaving keenly. The child swings swaddled between them, big eyed in the lantern dimmed; oh, they see it now, in her. By the time they reach the landing the men are sweating with the effort of not dashing her head against the wall. One would shoot her through the eye in a heartbeat; the other would cut her throat in a blink. At the top of the stairs they are in danger of hurling her down.
The nurse keeps them in check. Giving whispered orders, steadying them with her strong fingers on arms and ribs.
Bringing them back to the job at hand, for the money.
“Don’t think on it!” The nurse speaks urgent and low. “Don’t think on anything. Hoist her, aye, and we’ll be gone.”
The big house is silent tonight, but for our intruders moving through corridors with their trussed burden and breath-held shuffle. Awake to loose floorboards and creaking doors and light sleepers.
But the servants slumber on. The housekeeper, tidy bedded, neat of nightcap and frill (like a spoon put away for best), inspects the linen cupboards of her dreams. Smiling at immaculate piles, heaven fresh, as clean as clouds. The butler, proper, even in his nightshirted sleep, patrols an endless cellar. The bottles giggle in dark corners. They ease out their corks and call to him in honeyed voices. They sing songs of laden vines and sunny hillsides and duty forgotten—liquid bewitchment! He grips his lantern and will not stop. The housemaids, in their attic nests, are dreaming of omnibuses and pantomimes. The cook snores fruity, unpeeled, and well soaked under warm sheets, as solid and brandy scented as plum pudding. She dreams of matchless soufflés; she hunts them down as she sails in a saucepan over a gravy sea. All are senseless in the tucked-in, heavy-breathing, before-dawn quiet.
The big house is silent tonight, but for our intruders, hurrying out of the servants’ door.
The dogs lie poisoned in the yard, their muzzles flecked with spittle, a breeze ruffling their fur. This is the breeze that came over the sea, miles inland, past wood, fields, and lane to whisk the gravel on the drive and dance around the rooftop chimney pots and whistle through the keyholes.
The mice are wakeful and so, too, is the mean-eyed kitchen cat who needles after their fat pelts, sly and silent. This snake-tailed stalker watches the figures hasten across the cobbled courtyard, throwing moonlit shadows in their wake. The barn owl sees them as they round the house. She ghosts above on silent wings.
The lord of the manor. He, too, is awake.
A lamp burns in his study as he frets and puzzles, considers and adjusts. He bends over his writing, his handsome whiskers peppered with gray, his brow furrowed. He could be a fortune-teller, the way he’s inventing the future, coaxing and muttering it into being.
The shadows pass outside, crossing the terrace.
Perhaps hearing their footsteps, the lord of the manor looks to the window but, remarking no change in the night sky, returns to his plans.
The shadows move quickly over the lawn, toward the gate, two with swag slung between them, one following, limping.
The bundle is cradled over the ground. The child feels the grass whip under her canvas hammock. She feels the night air on her face and takes a breath of it and lets out a sigh you can’t hear.
The sea rocked asleep, now wakes and answers, a refrain of waves and shale song. The rain in the sky that is yet to fall, answers; a storm gathers. All the rivers and streams and bogs and lakes and fens and puddles and horse troughs and wishing wells wake and answer, adding their voices: faint and rushing, purling and gurgling, muddy and clear.
The child looks up. For the first time she can see the stars!
She smiles at them, and the stars look back at her and shiver.
Then they begin to burn brighter, with renewed fever, in the deep dark ocean of the sky.
The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and downdrafts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eye, as black as pooled tar, London is laid out—there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!
Below her, streets and lanes, factories and poorhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and treetops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames—the sky’s own dirty mirror. The raven leaves the river behind and charts a path to a chapel on a hill with a spire and a clock tower. She circles the chapel and lands on the roof with a shuffling of wings. She pecks at brickwork, at lichen, at moth casts, at nothing. She sidles up to a gargoyle and runs her beak affectionately around his eyes, nudging, scooping.
The gargoyle is a creature designed to vomit rainwater from the gape of his mouth onto the porch. The parishioners (when there were parishioners) blamed the blocked gutters, but it was always the gargoyle, holding back only to let go a sudden flood upon the faithful below as they stood at God’s threshold, looking up to the heavens, flinching.
The raven hops to the edge of the porch roof and peers down.
A woman is standing below: she looks up, but she doesn’t flinch. Bridie Devine is not the flinching kind.
What kind is she, then?
A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap. She presents in half-mourning dress, well cut but without flash or fashion. On top of her widow’s cap roosts a black, feather-trimmed bonnet of a uniquely ugly design. Her black boots are polished to a shine and of stout make. The crinoline is no friend of hers; her skirts are not full and she’s as loosely laced as respectability allows. Her cape, gray with purple trim, is short. This is a practical woman, or at least a woman who finds it practical to be able to fit through doorways, climb stairs, and breathe. At her feet, a doctor’s case, patched and antiquated, the leather buttery from handling.
She takes from her pocket a pipe. Here’s a teaser: a fast habit in one so seemly? And isn’t there a canniness to her smoking in the shelter of a deserted chapel (and not puffing down the Strand with a chinful of whiskers and a basket on her head)?
The raven eyes her with interest.
The woman winks at the bird. There is a world of devilment in her wink. The raven responds with a soft caw.
The bird gauges the gargoyle. No water falls; the gargoyle is dry-mouthed, the lips frame an empty grimace.
Reassured, the raven takes to the air.
Bridie Devine watches the raven fly out of sight. Now all that’s moving in this chapel yard are her thoughts, she thinks. The occasional cart or carriage passes the open gate. Otherwise there is a wall of a decent height between Bridie and the world and that is enough.
Bridie breathes out, turning her face up to the sun: autumn warmth, fuller-bodied and lovelier than summer heat, with the mellow dying of the season in it. Bridie welcomes it on brow and cheek. That the sun has found a clear patch of air to shine through (in these days of smoke-haze and mist and fog) ought to be appreciated.
Bridie is alone with the sun and her thoughts and her pipe.
The pipe is unremarkable: clay made, shaped to sit snug in the hand or in a tooth gap, of a cheap variety favored by Irish market harpies. Short of stem and small of bowl so that the nose of a hag may overhang and keep the rain off the tobacco. The pipe may be unremarkable but the contents are anything but. To her usual twist of any mundungus Bridie has lately been adding a nugget of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend. A crumbly, resinous substance that burns with a pleasant incense scent followed by a lancing chemical stink. This is less unpleasant than it sounds, being simultaneously bracing and dulling. You add lots of Prudhoe’s Blend for colorful thoughts and triple that amount for no thoughts at all.
Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend is just one of the recreational creations of Rumold Fortitude Prudhoe, experimental chemist, toxicologist, and expert in medical jurisprudence. Prudhoe’s previous legendary blends, Mystery Caravan and Fairground Riot, proved either blissful or petrifying. As such, these blends continue to attract loyal followers among his more adventurous friends, Bridie being one of them.
But now Bridie’s pipe is empty. She has smoked it all.
Bridie puts the bit of her empty pipe in her mouth, just while she’s thinking. A drop more tobacco would be nice. It wouldn’t have to obliterate her thoughts, just line her lungs. She’ll smoke anything: earthy and wholesome or treacly and nasty, street peddler’s dust or gentleman’s savor.
As if in answer, in the far corner of the chapel yard, a wisp of smoke wends its way up into the air.
Bridie takes this as a sign.
Bridie looks down at the man sprawled by the showy tomb of a successful family butcher. Two things strike her as immediately wrong.
Firstly, the man is deficient of clothing (his wardrobe consisting, in its entirety, of: a top hat, boots, and a pair of drawers).
Secondly, she can see through the man.
She is able, with perfect ease, to read the inscription on the tomb that should, by rights, be obscured by the body of the man. She can even see the angels on the decorative stone frieze.
This is an ingenious trick—like Pepper’s ghost! There will be mirrors, screens certainly, black silk or some such, an illusionist’s contraption, a phantasmagorical contrivance. A rudimentary search of nearby graves turns up nothing.
Bridie is baffled. If no external explanation for the presence of this transparent, partially clad man is evident, the cause must be internal. She cannot recollect transparent partially clad men being a symptom of the consumption of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend. But the list is long and includes many adverse reactions, from sweating of the eyeballs to sensitivity to accordion music.
She resolves to inspect this apparition, systematically, from crown to toe.
A top hat is tipped down over the eyes of its owner. Like its owner the hat is transparent. Despite this, Bridie can see that the hat has known better days. It is dented of body and misshapen of rim. The transparent man is naked to the waist; below the waist he sports close-fitting white drawers, tight at the thighs, sagging at the knees. The boots on his feet are unlaced and his fists are sloppily bound with unraveling bandages, none too clean. He is massive of chest and biceps, strong shouldered and thick necked. And tattooed: stern to bow.
Below the tipped-down hat rim: a nose that hasn’t gone unbroken, a clean-shaven jaw, and a shining black mustache (generous in proportions, expertly waxed, certainly rococo). In the mouth, a pipe lolls. A draw is taken from it, intermittently. The smoke has dwindled to a wisp now and has no discernible scent. On inhalation the tobacco in the pipe bowl glows blue.
Bridie wonders if the man has a pinch of tobacco to spare and, if so, whether that’s likely to be transparent too.
The man, perhaps sensing her presence, pushes up his hat idly. His eyes open and meet hers. He springs to his feet in alarm, holding his fists up before him.
He is nothing short of miraculous.
The tattoos that adorn his body—how clearly Bridie sees them now—are, in fact, moving. She is put in mind of Monsieur Desvignes’s Mimoscope. A device of cunning construction (a wonder among wonders at the Great Exhibition), pictures looped between spools, illuminated by a spark. Bridie, transfixed, saw animals, insects, and machinery—static images—flickering to life, to bounce and flutter, slither and winch. Bridie watches this man with the same fascination as, in one continuous motion, an inked anchor drops the length of his biceps. High on his abdomen an empty-eyed skull, a grinning memento mori, chatters its jaw. A mermaid sits on his shoulder holding a looking glass, combing her blue-black hair. On finding herself observed the mermaid takes fright and swims off under the man’s armpit with a deft beat of her tail. On his left pectoral an ornate heart breaks and re-forms over and over again.
He is a circus to the eye.
“Had a good look?” he asks.
Bridie reddens. “Forgive me, sir, if I startled you. I was after borrowing a smoke.” She gestures to her empty pipe.
The man lowers his fists. “Merciful Jesus, it is you. Is it not?” His expression turns to one of delight. He sweeps off his hat. “Oh, darling, do you know me?”
Bridie stares at him. “I do not.”
“Ah now ...” He runs a hand over shorn hair, black velvet, dense as a mole’s pelt, and wrinkles his strong square forehead. “Your name is Bridget.”
“My name is Bridie.”
“It is.” The man nods. “Your full appellation, if you would be so kind?”
Bridie hesitates. “Mrs. Bridie Devine.”
The man grins. “What else would it be, with those eyes divine?” He pauses. “And Devine would be your husband’s name, madam?”
“Late husband, sir,” corrects Bridie.
The man bows. “My sincere condolences, Mrs. Devine.”
Bridie turns to go. “If you’ll excuse me, sir.”
“Won’t you stay, Bridget? We could talk about the old times.”
Bridie stops. “Sir, you are quite mistaken in your belief that you know me—”
“But I do know you: you are Gan Murphy’s girl.”
Bridie’s eyes widen.
“I know he was your master, your gaffer.” The man pauses, his expression amused. “You don’t remember me at all, do you?”
Bridie looks at him in desperation, sensing a game that could go on for all eternity. “That is not the point, Mr.—”
“Doyle.” He wanders to a grave across the way and gestures down at it. “Not a bad spot, is it?”
Bridie follows him. She reads the headstone:
“THE DECORATED DOYLE”
Here lies RUBY DOYLE,
Tattooed SEAFARER and CHAMPION BOXER
Untimely taken, 21 March 1863
“He felled them with a bow”
“Do you know me now?” asks the dead man.
“Well, sir, you are a boxer by the name of Ruby Doyle. You have been deceased half a year, and still I do not know you.”
Ruby Doyle puts his hat back on. “Throw your mind back, Bridget.” He taps his topper down at the crown. “Think awhile. I’m in no hurry.”
“If this is some kind of trick, Mr. Doyle—”
“Ruby, if you please,” he says, with a rakish tip of his hat rim. “What trick?”
“You being dead.”
“Trick’s on me.”
“I do not believe in ghosts, sir.”
“Neither do I—why do you not?”
“I have a scientific mind. Ghosts are a nonsense.”
“A parlor trick.” Bridie looks at him hard. “Smoke and mirrors.”
Ruby smiles disarmingly. “A chance to pull one over?”
“A fashionable flimflam.”
“And what of table-tipping?” Ruby, who seems to be enjoying this, scans the heavens: “Send me a sign, Winifred.”
“Dark, overheated rooms and suggestible types.”
“Half of London is at it!”
“Half of London is duped. To believe in the existence of ghosts, spirits, phantoms—that one can see and converse with them—is deluded.”
“Are you deluded, Bridget?”
“I see you, sir, but I do not believe you exist.”
Ruby Doyle is crestfallen.
Bridie frowns. “If you will excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Churchyard work, is it?” He glances slyly at the bag in her hand. “Is there a shovel in there? Let me guess: you’re a resurrectioner, like your old gaffer, Gan?”
She rounds on him. “And I look like a resurrectioner? I help the police.”
“Do you, now. In what way?”
“Working out how people died.”
“How did I die?”
“A heavy blow to the back of the neck.”
“Now, that’s clever. But you read about it in the Hue and Cry?”
“I did not.”
“Boxer bested in tavern brawl. I’d survived this fella trying to knock me to pieces, stepped in for a quick celebratory one and then—”
“Ruby, I’m wanted in the crypt. They have found a body there.”
“That’ll be the place for it. Off you go, so. And my compliments to your gaffer—how is your old guv’nor Gan?”
“Dead. In jail.”
Ruby stops smiling. “Then I am sorry. Gan was one of those fellas that go on: a long, thin strip of gristle, everlasting. Do you not see him too?”
Bridie regards the man with desperation. “Gan is dead.”
“Then am I the only dead fella you see?”
“Appears like it.”
“What about Mr. Devine?”
Bridie looks puzzled.
“Your late husband,” Ruby prompts. “You must see him?”
“Then I’m peculiar to you. Are you surprised, Bridget? Are you rattled?”
“Nothing surprises or rattles me.”
“Is that so?” He reflects on this a moment, then: “Can I come with you, watch whatever it is that you’re doing in the crypt?”
“You may not.”
Bridie walks through the gravestones. Ruby ambles alongside her. The boots, unlaced, lend a loose parry to his boxer’s strut.
At the edge of the path she stops and turns to him. “I am hallucinating. You are a waking dream.” She bites her lip. “You see, I smoked something a little stimulating earlier ...”
Ruby nods sagely. “The empty pipe—is it Kubla Khan you’re visiting?”
Bridie is dumbfounded.
Ruby gestures at his bandages. “Ringside doctor, recited while he patched.”
When they reach the chapel, Bridie holds out her hand. “This is where we part company.”
Ruby smiles; it’s a charming kind of a smile that gaily remakes the contours of his fabulous mustache. His eyes, in life, would have been a handsome dark-molasses brown. In death, they are still alive with mischievous intent.
“I would shake your hand, Bridget, but—”
Bridie withdraws her hand. “Of course. Good day, Ruby Doyle.”
She heads into the chapel.
“I’ll wait for you, Bridget,” calls the dead man. “I’ll just be having a smoke for meself.”
Ruby Doyle watches her walk away. God love her, she hasn’t changed. She’s still captain of herself, you can see that; chin up, shoulders back, a level green-eyed gaze. You’ll look away before she does. She has done well for herself, with the voice and the clothes and the bearing of her.
If it were not for that irresistible scowl and that unmistakable hair, would he have recognized her? But then, the heart always knows those long-ago loved, even when new liveries confuse the eye and new songs confound the ear. Does Ruby know the stories that surround her? That she was an Irish street-rat rescued from the rookery by a gentleman surgeon who held her to be (ah now, this is a stretcher!) as the orphaned daughter of a great Dublin doctor. That despite her respectable appearance (it is rumored among low company), she wears a dagger strapped to her thigh and keeps poisonous darts in her boot heels. That she speaks as she finds, judges no woman or man better or worse than her, feels deeply the blows dealt to others and can hold both her drink and a tune. Ruby Doyle meanders back to his favorite spot, to muse on all he knows and all he doesn’t know about Bridie Devine, lighting his pipe with the fierce blue flame of the afterlife.
The curate of Highgate Chapel is battling the locked door to the crypt with his collar pulled up and his hat pulled down. On seeing Bridie, his face betrays surprise, which turns to displeasure when she reminds him of her business. The vicar is expecting her in relation to the delicate matter of the walled-up corpse. The curate fixes Bridie with a look of profound begrudgement and, managing to unlock the door, leads her into the crypt.
The corpse is propped in an alcove behind loose boards. Discovered by workmen clearing up after a flood, now abated. More than a few Highgate residents blame both the flood and the resurrected corpse on Bazalgette’s subterranean rummagings. All well and good creating a sewerage system that will be the envy of the civilized world, but should one really delve into London’s rancid belly? London is like a difficult surgical patient; however cautious the incision, anything and everything is liable to burst out. Dig too deep and you’re bound to raise floods and bodies, to say nothing of deadly miasmas and eyeless rats with foot-long teeth. The rational residents of Highgate defend Mr. Bazalgette as a first-rate engineer and deny the existence of eyeless rats.
The corpse had been immured in an alcove; its shackles and wide-socketed expression of terror suggest foul play. But the body is clearly of some age, lessening police interest in the case. This is a bygone crime in a city flooded with new crimes.
The coppers are up to the hub in it: London is awash with the freshly murdered. Bodies appear hourly, blooming in doorways with their throats cut, prone in alleyways with their heads knocked in. Half-burnt in hearths and garroted in garrets. Folded into trunks or bobbing about in the Thames, great bloated shoals of them.
Bridie has a talent for the reading of corpses: the tale of life and death written on every body. Because of this talent, Bridie’s old friend, Inspector Valentine Rose of Scotland Yard, passes her the odd case—with the understanding that she stops short of a postmortem, her unqualified status being a bar to this procedure. The cases usually have two things in common, other than having piqued Rose’s interest: bizarre and inexplicable deaths, and victims drawn from society’s flotsam (pimps, whores, vagrants, petty criminals, and the insane). For her considered opinion Bridie receives a stipend (paid, unbeknownst to Bridie, from the pocket of Rose himself) and signs her report with an illegible signature. If anyone asks, her name is Montague Devine. In the event that she is called to give evidence, she’ll give it in a frock coat and collar.
With the curate’s help Bridie clears the remaining stones from the alcove. The crypt is a grim space, with a vaulted ceiling and flagstone floor. As with many subterranean, lightless places it has the climate of a year-round winter. The recent flood has left a rich, peaty smell not unlike a dug bog.
The corpse, a woman, Bridie judges, by size and apparel, is well preserved, allowing for her lengthy entombment. A macabre spectacle decked in finery. There is a cruel theatricality to her, costumed as if for a tableau vivant. A tragic heroine, a goddess—an unknown figure from history! Her gown, rotten now, could be Grecian, Roman. Her pale hair, shedding in clumps, falls onto withered shoulders. Bridie divines last moments spent shackled by the neck in the suffocating dark. It is there in the open mouth, stiffened around a howl.
The curate fusses with the lamp, swearing under his breath. He is a young man with an unfavorable look about him. Slight of stature and large of head, with light-brown hair that cleaves thinly to an ample cranium with bumps and contours enough to astound even a practiced phrenologist. His complexion is as wan and floury as an overcooked potato and his mouth was made for sneering. Otherwise, Bridie notes, he is shabbily dressed for a curate and vaguely familiar.
“Sir, have we met?” she asks.
The curate regards her blankly. “I think not, Miss—”
“Mrs. Devine—I didn’t catch your name, sir.”
Bridie resumes the examination. Trying to ignore Mr. Cridge straining to see past her.
The corpse’s injuries (bone-deep lacerations to her right arm, three broken fingers, shattered mandible, fractured orbital) tell a dark story. A shawl hides her left arm. Bridie carefully unwraps it.
“She has a child,” she says.
A baby, swaddled, no bigger than a turnip, lies in a sling beneath the folds of its mother’s shawl. Bridie feels a flood of pity. There hadn’t even been space to sit, pressed as they were into a shallow recess, so this woman had died standing and her baby had perished alongside her.
Mr. Cridge leans in nearer and bites his lip, wearing an expression of ghoulish excitement. Bridie is offended on the victims’ behalf.
“If this is at all disturbing for you, Mr. Cridge, I suggest you leave me to it.”
“I’m not in the least disturbed. How old is the infant?”
“At death: a few months old. It suckles still on its mother’s finger.” Bridie peers closer. “The baby isn’t suckling the mother’s finger, it’s gnawing it.”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” The curate raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Apologies.”
Bridie frowns. “The lantern, Mr. Cridge, as near as you can, please.”
Bridie sees the baby’s face, wizened now, its features vague and leathery. Bridie puts the tip of her finger into the infant’s tiny mouth cavity, gently pushing past the mother’s shriveled digit.
“They are like pike’s teeth,” she says, astonished. “Irregular needles in the upper and lower jaw, sharp yet.”
“How about that ...” murmurs Mr. Cridge.
“I will need to remove the corpses for a thorough examination in decent light.”
“That will be impossible,” says Mr. Cridge sourly. “At least, not possible today.”
“It must be today; the police will expect my report.”
“The vicar is out.”
“Then I shall wait for him.”
“I will raise this matter with him directly he returns, Mrs. Devine.”
“Please make sure that you do, Mr. Cridge.”
The curate turns from the corpse to Bridie with a look of such concentrated enmity she is in no doubt: if he could, he’d shove her into the alcove and wall it up again.
Mr. Cridge closes and locks the gate behind them and pockets the key.
“I would strongly advise you to keep the nature of this discovery to yourselves, Mr. Cridge,” says Bridie. “London has a taste for aberrations.”
“I can assure you that this matter will attract the utmost discretion on our part. Good day to you, Mrs. Devine.” The curate puts his hat on, bows resentfully, and heads off toward the vicarage.
Bridie surveys the chapel yard: it is empty of partially clad, imaginary dead pugilists. Then she catches sight of it, bobbing into view above the top of the wall: a top hat. A hat that has known better days, dented of body, misshapen of rim, and transparent. With a firm hold of her case Bridie takes flight, around the side of the chapel and out through the back gate. She continues along the street alone—once or twice glancing back over her shoulder, with a mixture of relief and something approaching disappointment.
Bridie, crypt-cold to the bone, is glad to be aboveground. As she descends Highgate Hill, below her, in the acidulated smoke atmosphere, London glimmers. She follows the hidden Fleet townward, as the sky darkens and streetlamps are lit and the gaslights are turned up in shops and public houses. Past St. Giles, Little Ireland, where the tenements totter and the courts run vile with vice. New Oxford Street marches down the middle. The Irish hop over it and spread out to the north, forming new footholds. They have flooded this town, wave after wave of them, spilling out from their rookeries to perch in all places. On the south side, the buildings turn their backs on the main road, leaning inward, like gaunt conspirators. Change is always drawing near. Innovation waits like an offstage actor, primed and ready in the wings, biting its lip and grinning. Rag-plugged windows and crumbling bricks will give way to open landscapes of stone and sky.
The rats and the immigrants will be sent running.
But for now, the slums are as they have always been: as warm and lively as a blanket full of lice.
Bridie could find her way with her eyes shut and her nostrils open.
Try it now. Close your eyes (eyes that would be confused anyway by the labyrinthine alleys, twisting passages, knocked-up and tumbling-down houses).
Breathe in—but not too deeply.
Follow the fulsome fumes from the tanners and the reek from the brewery, butterscotch rotten, drifting across Seven Dials. Keep on past the mothballs at the cheap tailor’s and turn left at the singed silk of the maddened hatter. Just beyond you’ll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute and the Christian sweat of the charwoman. On every inhale a shifting scale of onions and scalded milk, chrysanthemums and spiced apple, broiled meat and wet straw, and the sudden stench of the Thames as the wind changes direction and blows up the knotted backstreets. Above all, you may notice the rich and sickening chorus of shit.
The smell of shit is the primary olfactory emission from the multifarious inhabitants in Bridie Devine’s part of town. Everyone contributes, the Russians, Polish, Germans, Scots, and especially the Irish. Everyone is at it. From Mrs. Neary’s newborn crapping in rags to Father Doucan squatting genteelly over his chamber pot. Their output is flung into cesspits, cellars, and yards, where it contributes to London’s perilous reek.
Bad air (as any man of science worth his monocle will tell you) sets up stall for the latest bands of traveling diseases. Cholera is the headlining act. When cholera comes to visit you’ll find the lanes empty. Cholera keeps the women and the children from pump and square and the men inside scratching their arses. When cholera comes to visit, the streets are quiet. There is no bustling to and fro, no gossip and ribald laughter, only fervent prayer and the dread of an unholy bowel movement.
Mercifully there is no cholera today and so the streets are full.
Full as only London is full—and the din of it! Chanters, costers and traders, omnibuses thundering along thoroughfares, horse hooves at a clip and carriage wheels at a growl, carts and barrows at a rumble, and all of London jostling in all directions at once.
Bridie heads home.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Things in Jars includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jess Kidd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into a macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Jess Kidd evokes Victorian London through all five senses. What descriptions brought the city alive for you? Were there any parts of Kidd’s London that felt familiar, or some that felt new?
2. Gan Murphy advised Bridie, “When in doubt, take it apart, girl” (page 80). How does Bridie “take things apart” in Things in Jars?
3. The detective is a familiar figure in Victorian-era fiction. Discuss how Kidd subverted your expectations of a traditional detective—or did she?
4. How would you describe Mrs. Bibby? What defines her as a character?
5. In addition to the merrow, there are many references to mythology from various cultures, including character names like Euryale (one of the Greek Gorgons and a sister of Medusa), Father Thames, and Herne the Hunter, and creatures such as the kraken and the raven. How do these uses of mythology influence the tone and spirit of the novel?
6. Bridie has two love interests in the novel: Ruby Doyle, and Valentine Rose of Scotland Yard. What do the two men have in common? How are they different?
7. Were you surprised to learn who attacked Eliza? How does the revelation affect Bridie?
8. Storytelling is woven into Things in Jars in various ways, including through folklore and family histories. What do you think the author is trying to achieve with these layers of storytelling?
9. How do the worlds of magical realism and science complement each other in this novel? Do you think the author blends them together successfully?
10. There are many writers, poets, and works of literature mentioned by Kidd, including Charles Dickens. In what ways do you see a Dickensian influence in Things in Jars? What elements of plot, characterization, and setting remind you of his novels?
11. What aspect of Christabel/Sibéal most intrigued you? Although this character does not speak, what are you able to learn about her personality? What do you think she and Bridie might have in common?
12. How did you react after learning the truth about Ruby Doyle? Discuss your impression of Bridie and Ruby’s relationship from start to finish.
13. Transformation is at the center of Things in Jars: a child transforms into a mermaid; Bridie remakes herself in childhood and dons disguises throughout her investigation; Cora’s life is changed by a new love; characters live, die, and even return as ghosts. In your opinion, which character undergoes the greatest transformation, and why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research mythological sea creatures from other cultures and read a folktale about one of them. Consider in what ways those tales resemble the story of the merrow in Things in Jars, and how they differ.
2. As a group, visit a local natural history museum—you might find some “things in jars.” Are there any displays or specimens from the Victorian era? In what ways do they differ from more modern artifacts?
3. If your reading group has not yet read Jess Kidd’s other novels, Himself and Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, choose one of them and discuss it at your next gathering. What similarities do they share with Things in Jars? Differences? What themes do you think interest Jess Kidd as a writer?
A Conversation with Jess Kidd
Q: What interested you about the merrow figure? Why did you decide to have Christabel/Sibéal be a merrow?
A: I first encountered the merrow in Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, published in 1825. I was instantly fascinated and began to investigate further. Legend had it that the merrow women were beautiful and they would often take a land-based human mate, for the merrow men were astonishingly ugly. The merrow’s magic cap, which allowed her to return to her underwater past life, would have to be taken and hidden by her husband if she were to stay with him. The image of a woman transformed from a wild creature of the sea to a domesticated mortal is found in other shape-shifting folklores, such as the sealskin-shedding selkie. This metamorphosis, in most cases, is not plain sailing. The merrow for me became the wilder, angrier cousin of the mermaid, who has undergone much sweetening through all her many incarnations in popular legend.
I wanted to rewrite the Irish merrow myth setting it in Victorian London, a period bridging the popularity of cabinets of curiosities and exotica with the later collecting and taxonomic frenzy that followed on the evolutionary discoveries of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. There was a fascinating interplay between the world of science and the world of the circus—experts would be called on to validate spectacular acts, and circus sideshows offered “case studies.” With a Victorian public clamoring for spectacle, a merrow in this time and place would become more than a myth: she would become a curiosity, and therefore a commodity.
Q: The novel is a fantastic blend of genres with many mythological and literary allusions. Were there any books of mythology or novels that particularly influenced Things in Jars?
A: As I researched the book I began to get a feel for the grit and magic of mid-nineteenth-century London. If you were born poor there was little hope your life would ever be other than precarious, ill-nourished and short. And yet, on the back of massive capital, innovation flourished. The first stretch of the London Underground was built in 1863; some said risking a journey at its breakneck speeds (20 mph) could age you by decades, or realign your organs! I wanted to listen in to the street talk and watch the great new rail lines being laid. The books I was influenced by were varied, ranging from Henry Mayhew’s account of working Londoners published during the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London Labour and the London Poor) to Michel Faber’s remarkable The Crimson Petal and the White. Some of the mythological references were suggested by place (Father Thames, Herne the Hunter for the Windsor scenes), but I had fun bringing in other references, such as the raven from Dickens and Poe. I hoped that these literary references could add another layer to the rich Victorian metropolis. Even today there’s sense of strata to the story of London, that after two thousand years it rests on so many lives and tales and that anything could be possible in this glorious, filthy and glittering city.
Q: Bridie is such an original, fierce character. Were you thinking of any historical or literary figures when you wrote her?
A: I was always drawn to female characters who fought and won control over their lives. Oddly, the first character that came to mind was Jane Austen’s Emma, but I loved the feral wildness of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights traipsing over the moors as child, woman and ghost. Bridie very much presented herself fully formed, from her extraordinarily ugly bonnet to the poisonous darts she (allegedly) keeps in her boot heels. Bridie is very much the product of her past, and the skills she possesses (no one reads a body or a crime scene quite like her) are as a result of her experiences. She’s been a Dublin orphan, a resurrection man’s sidekick, an anatomist’s apprentice, and she finished her training with an experimental toxicologist.
Bridie adopts a male disguise in order to infiltrate places she would be unable to go as a woman, a surgical lecture at St. Bart’s for example. Consider the extraordinary Dr. James Barry, a decorated military surgeon who hailed from Cork, Ireland, who was found on “his” death to have been a woman all these years. At a time when men controlled the public sphere and women were barred from entering the medical profession, it seemed likely that Dr. Barry had presented as a man in order, amongst other complex motivations, to become a surgeon.
Q: What research was involved in your writing process?
A: I read a fair amount of Victorian fiction and nonfiction, especially novels or accounts written around the time my book is set (1863). I also read historical novels to get a sense of what might provide the reader a way into the period when I started to build by own world. Throughout the process I turned to nonfiction works on everyday Victorian life to get the background details right. The worlds of surgery and the circus in particular were wonderful to research. On any given day I could find myself engrossed in accounts of early operations, or looking at old surgical instruments or finding out about the lives of circus performers. I’m London-based, so I was also able to walk the city I was writing about, which was extremely helpful. During the early stage of planning, a local historian and map expert accompanied me so I could learn to see past the modern day. In this way I started to trace an outline of Bridie’s world on my own, using many of the landmarks still here today. I also found inspiration at sites such as the Old Operating Theatre Museum and the Herb Garret (for drying herbs and storing medicines) hidden in the roof space of St. Thomas’ Church, once the original site of St. Thomas’ Hospital. After several visits to this, Europe’s oldest surviving operating theater, I felt equipped to write the surgical scenes. Throughout the process I consulted specialists in various fields of Victorian studies, for example, to make sure Ruby Doyle’s tattoos were historically accurate! Even when the detail was fantastic, it felt important that it should be historically appropriate. Finally, just before the copyediting stage, I worked with a history lecturer and academic to double-check that I was on the right track.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your research?
A: I learned that the Victorians were not at all staid and straitlaced! Many of them were free-thinking and experimental and curious about the world. But conventions were important, and adopting a veneer of respectability could still allow greater freedom. This was a time when your social class and gender dictated the course of your life, who you met and how you ought to behave. One of the most surprising things I learned was exactly how restricted Bridie as a single woman living alone would have been in terms of freedom of unchaperoned movement. This was a time when men controlled the public spheres and women were encouraged to retreat into a domestic setting. This didn’t bode well for my female investigator, particularly one I had envisaged as being able to go from the Rookery slums to the grandest drawing room. I began to see this obstacle as a challenge for the indomitable Bridie to face. Researching the finer points of Victorian society gave a solution: if Bridie adopted a widow’s dress she would be instantly identifiable as a respectable woman with a little more freedom to roam.
Q: The novel moves back and forth in time and has multiple perspectives. Discuss Mrs. Bibby’s story within a story. Why did you decide to have her tell her history as a story? Did you consider other ways to explore her past?
A: I’m very drawn to stories and storytellers and I think they feature in all my fiction. Mrs. Bibby was one of my favorite characters to write: her experiences and history have shaped her into a ruthless and adaptable criminal. However, I didn’t want to make her just out-and-out bad, but rather show how her journey has created her. By fictionalizing her past she’s able to communicate painful events; it also adds to that layering of lore that happens throughout the book. So, two runaway waifs from an orphanage don’t see dangerous fog, they see gamboling otters. I think the role of storyteller is well fitted to Mrs. Bibby, who gets by on her guile and by weaving fictions to disguise her identity.
Q: Ruby is not your first ghost character. Why did you want to include another one in this novel?
A: I have on ongoing fascination with the relationship between the living and dead, not just the idea of ghosts, but who sees them, and what they can come to represent. In my other books I had multiple ghosts, such as the chorus of dead people in Himself and the saints in Mr. Flood’s Last Resort. However, with this book I wanted the relationship to be more intense and intimate. A living character falling in love with a ghost (or vice versa!) is not a new idea, but it’s a very powerful one. I think a lot can be explored through this, not least the difficulty we have in letting go when we lose someone and we want that person’s story to somehow go on. I also set myself a challenge with writing my one ghost: to make him as physically real as possible. As a boxer, Ruby Doyle defines himself by his physicality and to an extent must come to accept the loss of his body.
Q: Relationships between parents and children are central to the novel. Was there any particular aspect of this relationship you wanted to explore?
A: A brilliant question and one that’s got me thinking that my stories tend to start from a place where the protagonist has experienced a loss of family or parent. I find the repercussions of a parent-child relationship, positive and negative, a source of fascination because making sense of this relationship lies at the heart of my characters.
In Things in Jars the parent-child relationships by birth (Dr. Harbin and Myrtle, or Gideon and Dr. Eames, for instance) are not always strong, sustaining, or built on trust. Things in Jars offers family models founded on friendship or mutual respect rather than being related genetically. Dr. and Mrs. Prudhoe foster children whom society has thrown away, and Bridie, an orphan, finds various mentors and charges throughout her life.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I have just finished my first book for children, called Everyday Magic, for readers seven years and upward. Novel Four is on its way and I’m very excited about it, another historical novel but set in a time and a place you might not expect from me. I’m also working on original TV projects with some amazing production companies.