If Beth Cato's 'Breath of Earth' (review here) was the best book I read last year, then Viola Carr's 'The Diabolical Miss Hyde' (review here) was the best book I read the year before that. It was a fantastic romp through Victorian London and Victorian literature too. I adored it. I didn't enjoy the sequel as much, though it was still enjoyable, and so I was eager to see how book three would turn out.
Well, Carr is back on top of her game and writing with relish. This is the fastest paced of the three books so far, to a large degree because the control of our heroine, Dr. Eliza Jekyll, daughter of Henry, is fading. Her own dark side, Lizzie Hyde, is hovering much closer nowadays and she's starting to burst through at inappropriate moments to do inappropriate things, like throwing a vase at Chief Inspector Reeve. What's more, Eliza is starting to see and converse with Lizzie even when she still has control. Attempting a form of timesharing where they both get their time in the forefront just isn't working out.
And, of course, now is not the time to lose control. On a grand scale, England is moving towards war with France, whose nation is riddled with sorcerers who have already managed to assassinate Queen Victoria. Incidentally, can we still regard this as Victorian when Victoria is dead? Whichever way, Remy Lafayette, Eliza's secret werewolf of a fiancé, is undercover in Paris on Royal Society business, leaving her to battle Lizzie when not investigating murders for the Metropolitan Police or treating the new king on the orders of the Regent.
I should add that the latter isn't quite the plum job it appears. The Regent is Isaac Newton, more usually referred to as 'the Philosopher' and the force behind the Royal Society, which exists to suppress science that moves in ways in which he doesn't approve. The king is Edward VII, a seventeen year old 'drooling half-wit' with 'the mind of a six-year-old'. Merely being in such company is danger for Eliza, especially with Lizzie so eager to escape and wreak her own particular brand of havoc.
And so it's increasingly difficult for Eliza to concentrate on her actual job as a crime scene physician. The case at hand involves the murder of several prominent scientists, all of whom, she discovers, are linked to a mysterious invention, which I won't spoil even though the back cover of the paperback does a pretty good job of doing that through literary comparison. It's a good case: capably framed, enticingly explored and neatly escalated. There are points where it fades a little into the background, as Eliza battles Lizzie, but it never stays there for long, only long enough for us to wonder about the ramifications of what Carr is telling us and prepare for Eliza (or Lizzie) to return to discover more.
One thing that struck me here is how alive Lizzie felt. The Jekyll and Hyde concept is traditionally about the separation of good and evil, but the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson isn't quite that black and white. Being Victorian, his dichotomy was always as much about propriety or impropriety in an age obsessed with outward morality as good or evil; and Viola Carr nails that interpretation. For all that she works what would be seen as a man's job, Eliza can behave in public and acknowledge the social niceties; on the other hand, Lizzie is streetwise and able to manoeuvre her way around the dark side of London. It has to be said that dichotomies were everywhere in the Victorian era and Carr plays with a few of them.
What makes this Electric Empire series work so well is not that Carr interprets and extrapolates on what went before, though she does that. It's that she uses it as a grounding on which to write her own stories. If 'The Diabolical Miss Hyde' as a glorious burst of imagination, 'The Devious Dr. Jekyll' was a decent but occasionally awkward attempt at a sequel. I got the impression that Carr had thrown everything she had into the first book and suddenly realised that she had to follow it up with another. This time out, it feels like she's a lot more prepared and the story flows wonderfully, weaving old characters and new together with style. Rather than another sequel, it feels like an episode in a strong series that's moving forward well.
One new character I particularly appreciated was Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, a fading older version of the pickpocket from 'Oliver Twist'. It helps, of course, that his scenes are focused around Lizzie rather than Eliza. One thing that I love in this series is how Carr narrates using a different voice for each of her leads. Chapters with Dr. Jekyll at the fore are written in carefully constructed language, paying attention to grammar and propriety; chapters where Lizzie Hyde takes over, however, are free flowing in a sort of street poetry, forsaking the propriety for colour and texture. For instance, when Lizzie and Dodger first meet, Lizzie's narration begins like this:
'Grotesquely fat, this cove, his stretched suit splitting at the armpits and straining around thunderous thighs. Deep in his doughy face, his eyes glint, evil pinpricks buried like jewels.
"Lizzie Hyde, m'dear, as I live and breathe." With sausage fingers, he doffs a dented black topper. Kinked, it is, as if a rampsman thwacked him over the noggin and he never beat it out.
A famous hat, that. Almost as famous as the name what wears it.'
That's language not just to read but to read aloud and revel in it, and it's more prominent with each book that passes in this series. If a theoretical movie adaptation would justifiably cast a name star as Dr. Eliza Jekyll, the nominal focus of the story and our logical avatar, it should cast a powerful character actress as Lizzie Hyde, because that's who people would be quoting and cosplaying and wanting to be.
There's more to talk about with 'The Dastardly Miss Lizzie' but it would fall well on the wrong side of the spoiler barrier and should be reserved for discussion at book clubs that pick this novel as a subject. I hope to see one spring up on the calendar, so I can attend and rave about how glorious the series is becoming. Bring on book four! ~~ Hal C Astell
Book #2 - The Devious Dr. Jekyll is reviewed here.