Sunday, 9 December 2012

Delicious Death - Devoured

Twitter is a weird thing, isn't it? You get involved in it, and suddenly you are friends with THE ENTIRE INTERNET, and then you have conversations with your real, actual friends that go like:

YOU: Oh, I know her!
THEY: How do you know her?
YOU: I know her on, um, twitter...
THEY: You don't know her. You're delusional.
YOU: No, but twitter is actually very... sort of...
THEY: Like I said. You're delusional.

Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I follow the writer D. E. Meredith on twitter, because she likes Victorian crime (like me) and she seems nice (like... no, wait), and because of this I decided I needed to give her Victorian crime novel Devoured a whirl.

So, invisible internet not-friends, I did.

Devoured, as I said, is historical crime fiction, set in London in the 1850s. A wealthy female patron of scientific discovery, specifically the shocking new research of men like Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace, has been found dead, her head bashed in by one of her prized fossils. Dr Hatton and his Head Diener Monsieur Roumande, practitioners of the (other) new science, forensics, are called in to help, but it soon becomes clear that the murder of Lady Bessingham is just the beginning. Someone has been murdering 'Botanicals' (people who are interested in the theory of evolution), and it seems as though the crimes may have something to do with letters sent to Lady Bessingham by an explorer on a collecting expedition to Borneo. But when Hatton and Roumande make an unpleasant connection between a series of dead children and the Botanicals murders, the police don't like what they're being told. With so much against them, can Hatton and Roumande manage to expose the truth?

This is an interesting premise, especially for me. I love the story of how Darwinism came to be, and I appreciate a writer who acknowledges that Darwin wasn't the only scientist working on the evolution project. In fact, I am just totally on board with the current trend for properly researched historical fiction. Meredith both adores her subject and knows a lot about it, and as a result her settings really work. The Borneo letters (my favourite part) glow with beautifully described flowers, birds and beasts, and they're contrasted nicely with the cold, misty London winter setting of the rest of the novel.

Devoured, as you might expect, is all about people being taken over by their obsessions. Corruption is everywhere, in the heart of London as well as the heart of the jungle, and it affects every character in the novel. Sometimes this gets a bit simplistic - the Big Bad Duke of Evil, Lord Ashby, is pretty much cartoonish in his pursuit of filth for filth's sake - but there are some more interesting portrayals. The beta baddie, Madame Martineau, is not just written as the bloodsucking femme fatale she could have so easily become. She's a rounded character who does her evil because she believes it's in pursuit of a higher, truly worthy, cause, and I like that.

Mid-Victorian London is brought to life vividly, the story rollicks along and the murders are many and interestingly varied. Overall, I definitely came down on the side of liking Devoured, both its style and its substance. Meredith's imagination and plotting ability are firmly in place and in no doubt. But there's something about the way the book is written that, at times, left me a bit ambivalent about it. Meredith's style is sharp and interestingly elliptical, but while some of her sentences hit home beautifully, some just didn't work for me. Since this is Meredith's first piece of published fiction (and, as she's said in interviews, she's a writer who hasn't done much of it before) I suspect that she still hasn't quite settled into her form. But while there are kinks and bothers, there's also talent on show: like I said, there are some sentences that are really great. I think that future Hatton and Roumande novels will just keep on getting better, and the little points that I'm raising here are definitely not going to prevent you from enjoying a very fun book.

Devoured is not perfect by any means, but it's a very engaging presentation of a scientific and historical moment that I love. Victorianists will be delighted by it, and historical crime fans will be very pleased to be introduced to the comforting medical presences of Messrs. Hatton and Roumande. And I will certainly be reading the next in the series.

3 stars.

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