Beyond its cover, which is an agreeable conglomeration of darkly lush colours but far too closely suggests a girly romance, 'The Diabolical Miss Hyde' turned out to be the perfect book for my mixed tastes.
There is romance waiting inside, but it's never girly. This is a mystery, a horror and an adventure; a fantasy, a period piece and a gothic long before it's a romance. It's a steampunk romp and it's a mashup of literature and history and all the things that Viola Carr discovered in Victorian London that made her want to write this book, the first in her 'Electric Empire' series.
At heart, it's a modern day gothic with firm roots in the Victorian originals. The heroine is Eliza Jekyll, the daughter of Henry and a Dr Jekyll all of her own, a 26 year old MD. She works as a crime scene investigator, bringing light into the muddy world of Victorian detection through the application of emerging forensic science, but she finds that life is a constant struggle.
She struggles against a world, personified by Detective Inspector Reeve, which neither appreciates nor understands women doing the work of men, the feminist underpinnings of the story handled without too much anachronism. She struggles against the system, in which science is policed by the Royal Society and its mechanical enforcers for any deviation from the boundaries set forth by the Philosopher, a term referring to Sir Isaac Newton. She struggles with her feelings for Capt Remy Lafayette, an interloper from the Royal Society into her investigations into a set of gruesome amputation murders, because she fears him and what he stands for but is also as clearly attracted to him as he is to her.
And, of course, she struggles with herself because, like her father before her, she is two-natured. Eliza Jekyll is Lizzie Hyde and vice versa, however different the two may seem. Their transformation is physical as well as emotional, Lizzie a more buxom wench who acknowledges none of the restraints of decency that guide Eliza's actions. Eliza is 'plain, clumsy, middle-class' and unmarried to boot; Lizzie is a foul-mouthed hussy with drive, passion and temper. Yet they're also two halves of the same person who fight more than they ever agree.
Naturally this introductory volume in the series tasks Eliza with not only solving the murders but finding some way to co-exist with her dark alter ego. Their relationship is by far the most important one in the book and it's told magnificently, in two completely different tones depending on which character is dominant at that moment in time. This is relatively easy early on, as the pair get their own chapters and rarely bother each other, but it tasks the talents of Viola Carr as they become less indistinguishable as the story rolls on. Fortunately, her success in portraying Eliza and Lizzie as both different and different aspects of the same is the grandest of the book. It is the fundamental reason why it works so well.
The key mystery raised during proceedings is resolved by the end, of course, in ways that remind not only of the routine forensic science police procedurals we know so well from TV but also of the grander ones expounded by Thomas Harris in book and film. The character of Malachi Todd, the lunatic mass murderer known as Razor Jack, is clearly based on Hannibal Lecter and his early scenes highlight how this Dr Jekyll is an enticing combination of Will Graham and Clarice Starling. Jekyll was responsible for catching Todd before this book begins, just as Graham had caught Lecter before 'Red Dragon', but she has both the toughness and innocence of Starling and their interaction is far more reminiscent throughout of 'The Silence of the Lambs' than 'Manhunter'.
While Jekyll and Hyde are the dominant characters, there are a number of others of note, even if they might not seem to be at the outset. Initially, for instance, Capt Lafayette appears to be a weak character, included only to pose a threat both to Eliza and her work, but he finds depth as the story runs on and ought to be much more important as the series continues. The mysterious AR, Eliza's absent guardian, is merely a cipher for the most part, until a glorious reveal, literally by pulling a curtain aside, highlights how he's so much more. Marcellus Finch, the alchemist who brews up the potion Eliza needs to keep Lizzie in check, grows from being a minor piece in her puzzle to a major piece in a bigger one.
I feel driven to talk about other characters, but should avoid the spoiler territory into which it would be simplicity itself to descend. Suffice it to say that not all the interesting folk will be back for the second 'Electric Empire' volume, but many ought to return with a vengeance, to expand both in depth and importance. Others, often mentioned here in teasing hints but never seen, might show up too but it's worth mentioning that their inclusion also suggests that we can scramble through our knowledge of gothic horror to guess at who else Carr might let into this world.
I adored this book for its characters, for its gadgetry, for its unapologetic gothic tone, for its manipulation of history and Victorian literature, for its merging of genres. I adored it for its substance, running longer than similar novels and benefitting from the additional depth that the length allows. Perhaps I adored it most fervently for its double nature, the interplay between Eliza and Lizzie representing the push and pull between the decent and the indecent, which to me has always been the dichotomy of the Victorian era: ever righteous, upstanding and optimistic on the outside but inwardly cruel, perverted and ruthlessly unfair. I even adored it for the way the trade paperback felt in my hand, with a strong spine but agreeably floppy pages. It has a habit of falling open rather than over and enticing us in, as every book should.
Viola Carr is far from a new author, though I don't believe that she's published under this name before, working mostly in urban fantasy under the name of Erica Hayes. Her prose is a delight, far more restrained as Carr than she appears to be as Hayes, though still suggestive. This is highly appropriate, given the different genres in which they write, but perhaps Carr is also the Jekyll to Hayes's Hyde.
I for one am eagerly awaiting her return to the 'Electric Empire' with 'Tenfold More Wicked', due later in 2015. ~~ Hal C F Astell
Click here to read a review of book 2 - The Devious Dr. Jekyl