RogerBW's Blog

The Sorceress of the Strand, L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace 25 March 2016

Collection of six short mystery stories from 1902-1903. Madame Sara, the best "beautifier" in London, is also a master criminal – one might even say a veritable Napoleon of crime.

I was put onto this by Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d'Urbervilles, and the influence of Sherlock Holmes is obvious: while the narrator is supposed to be a reasonably cunning investigator, and indeed chemist, in his own right, all the real detection and chemistry are done by his friend Vandeleur the police surgeon.

But unlike Doyle's work these mostly aren't stories about the Great Detective; Meade and Eustace clearly regard their villainess as the point of the effort, and although she doesn't spend a great deal of time on stage she's by far the best-developed character here. In turn-of-the-century London, as well as her criminal activities, she is everything from cosmetician to plastic surgeon:

Another chair, supported on a glass pedestal, was kept there, Madame Sara informed me, for administering static electricity. There were dry-cell batteries for the continuous currents and induction coils for Faradic currents.

Though of course there's no mention of the one trade which someone specialising in private treatments for women and with criminal tendencies would be certain to practice, and in which her extensive knowledge of poisons would be thoroughly helpful.

Unlike the Holmes stories again, the mystery is not in who is behind the Dastardly Plot: every time, it's Madame Sara again (even if in practice she has merely provided the idea for someone else to implement). And in spite of all the previous incidents, more people constantly fall under her spell. Rather, the mystery is in what is going on, and in how it is being contrived. Of course Madame Sara must always escape from imprisonment or the hangman so as to be available for the next story, and even in these few tales the repetition of plot becomes plain.

But in spite of this, and one villain described as "half Jew, half Greek", there's a sense of fun here. It's unashamedly melodramatic writing in the grand tradition, and while not challenging to the intellect it's a pleasant diversion.

Freely available at UPenn (with original illustrations), ManyBooks (various formats) and LibriVox (audiobook).

See also:
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles, Kim Newman

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