RogerBW's Blog

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss 22 June 2022

2019 historical fantasy, third and probably last of its series. The various monstrous ladies – Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappacini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Lucinda Van Helsing – return from Budapest to find both Alice their housemaid and Sherlock Holmes missing.

Some people found this book a disappointment, but for me the series finally finds its feet. The writing has improved, there are fewer heavy-handed Americanisms, and since relatively little of the action happens in real London there's less opportunity for factual error. (I have no idea what St Michael's Mount, scene of some of the climactic events, is like in reality, and this probably helps.) There also aren't as many character introductions as in earlier books – the cast is already quite large – and even readers who don't know The Jewel of Seven Stars shouldn't have trouble working out how the new characters fit in. At the same time and rather to my surprise, I found the world easier to believe in: yes, there are these various conspiracies and most of the late-Victorian horrors have some sort of reality – I was almost surprised that Madame Sara didn't show up at some point – but unlike the second book I didn't get the feeling that the supernatural strangenesses ought to be overpowering the mundane and recognisable historical world.

"Oh goodness," said a woman in the black dress of a housekeeper, who emerged from a door farther down the hall. The strange footman peeked out from the doorway behind her. "Miss Jennings, I am so pleased to see you, and Miss Van Helsing as well—Miss Jekyll has told me all about you. I'm Mrs. Poole. But I'm afraid none of the ladies are here right now. They're down in Cornwall trying to stop Mrs. Raymond and some Egyptian mummy she resurrected from kidnapping the Queen. I think you'd better come in. There's someone you should meet."

Pacing remains odd; there's a false climax a little past the half-way mark in which a great number of villainous plots are overset, only to be replaced by different villainies, but all in all I thought this worked rather well. After all, this is a consciously feminist take on Victorian pulp literature; if the fatuous heroes are to be replaced by women, why should the villains be exempted?

Do things reach a bit far, in that there's an actual plot to depose Queen Victoria? Perhaps. But it's the sort of plot that makes sense given the people who are setting it up. The sense of fun in the face of danger returns: yes, our heroines know they are potentially facing death if they fail, but one feels that none of them would swap their lives for quiet ones in which nobody ever called on them for help.

It's been a while since I read the earlier books, but I enjoyed this rather more than the middle volume, and perhaps even more than the first – for me it brought back the joy of discovering the original short story.

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See also:
The Sorceress of the Strand, L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

Previous in series: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman | Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club

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