The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.





Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.


Exceptional Joan

I don’t usually do this sort of thing.  Write about television or visual media.  I’m a book person.  I’m comfortable there.  But I suppose there’s a crossover, given that the writer for the most recent Elementary episode is Paul Cornell, whose fiction I’ve read and enjoyed here and there.  

Elementary is my favorite tv show.  It’s currently the only show I watch regularly and keep up with, as it comes out (online, 10pm is too late for me to stay up and watch it on the day).  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Elementary is it’s ability to represent lots of different kinds of people, to never feel like it’s consciously excluding any one group.  It seems, instead, to make a conscious effort to include people from groups that are generally marginalized in mainstream media.  It’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it does seem to make an effort.

So, we’re back to this week’s episode, “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got you?,” written by Paul Cornell and featuring a comic book hero as its main plot.  It was funny, don’t get me wrong, and enjoyable to watch the way Joan and Sherlock’s relationship seems to have really come to a point of mutual understanding and closeness.  

Except, where were all the other women?

Except for Joan’s friend running the charity for whom she’s doing the clothing drive, there are basically no other women in the entire episode with speaking parts.  Even Morland’s Russian seamstress doesn’t get a word in when he casually dismisses her so he can conduct his seedy business with Joan.

Bad enough this happens at all, but add to it the fact that the episode is about comic books and superheroes–two subjects that have been really, well, shitty, about their treatment of women characters and women in general–and overall I was left with a feeling that the creators of this episode just didn’t think women were necessary or belonged.  Which is a hell of a feeling to get about a show that up till now always made me feel welcome, whose main characters always cared about what happened to those generally left out.

Let’s break it down a little more, and really dig at what was so deflating about this episode.

First, Joan’s friend.  It’s great when we get to see aspects of Joan’s personal life, especially her friends who are women because she’s so constantly surrounded by men in the course of her work.  But the friend just happens to be the manager of a charity designed to help the disadvantaged–a very feminized form of work for the public good, especially compared to the very masculinized “heroes” we meet later on–and she’s the passive recipient of a huge amount of money from Moreland, who has a really bad history with women and is later revealed to have made the donation pretty much to manipulate Joan.  Oh yeah, and the clothing donation Joan is dropping off at the point happens to come from Everyone, in an embarrassing episode in which Sherlock forces them all to strip in his living room, and who is front and center in the shot while he’s explaining it all to Joan?  Of course, it’s a woman in black bra and underwear, who just happens to be very attractive, especially in comparison with the overweight and otherwise “undesirable” men she’s with.  And of course she’s the only woman.  Fun times.

After the revelation of the murder, we meet Joan and Sherlock in the waiting area of Superlative Comics, and Joan reveals that she knows a lot more than Sherlock’s recently acquired knowledge of all the Superlative heroes because her brother was a comic nerd.  Yeah.  Joan couldn’t possibly be a geek, and even though she’s not even claiming the title she’s put through the classic geek girl test, and by her partner no less.  Maybe the show’s creators just thought it was a clever way to “introduce” the Superlative brand, but it comes off as another example of a woman taking on the emotional labor of knowing everything about the activities of the men in their lives, while getting none of the rewards.

Of course, all the people Joan and Sherlock talk to at Superlative are men, because a woman couldn’t possibly be a writer for a comic, and definitely not in charge of anything so important as a publishing house.  A woman may have been glimpsed walking around the Superlative offices, but she was probably just getting coffee or something.  

Let’s talk about overall plot.  Plot A comes down, basically, to the fragile masculinity of the grandson of the Midnight Ranger comic’s creator (the superhero impersonated by the murdered “hero” of Greenpoint).  This is in counterpoint to the “heroes” themselves, who are typical representatives of masculinity you find in action movies–their physical prowess, particularly–which they use directly to stop crimes.  I practically laughed out loud when half the crimes were saving poor hapless women from purse snatchers.  The grandson and murderer, by contrast, only has an arsenal of weapons, and is characterized basically as a physical coward who just wants what everyone else has.

While all of this is happening, Moreland Holmes is trying to use the guilt and sense of obligation that women are socialized to feel towards anyone ever doing anything nice for them in order to get Joan–not just to work for him–but to have sympathy for him.  Moreland wants her to understand that he is not only wronged in business, but sorely misunderstood by his son, who really ought to just get over all that stuff with his mother anyway.  Moreland thinks, and wants everyone to think, that he is always in the right.  Joan’s secrecy about her meetings with Moreland didn’t feel right with her current relationship with Sherlock; she was portrayed as some version of a sneaking or cheating spouse; she’s like a woman expected to always get clearance from the man in her life, going against his wishes in poorly contrived scene after poorly contrived scene.

Joan’s decision to use the real mole to her advantage is in character with her previous actions and willingness to be more cutthroat than Sherlock, however because of the way it was staged I worry that it will not only go sour somehow, but the fact that it does go wrong will be used to put Joan in her place sometime in the future, to pull her back from the level of near-professional-equality she has achieved with Sherlock.  Once again, as long as Joan is supporting Sherlock, she’s fine.  When she oversteps her bounds, that’s when we have to start expecting punishment.  Just look what happened when she cheated on Sherlock with his brother.  She got kidnapped and almost killed.  

All in all, this episode gave the distinct impression that women have a defined role in this world, and it certainly doesn’t overlap with the affairs or interests of men.  Women are meant to be quiet, to be decorative, to fill their time in charitable activities, but above all not to presume they are owed equal place with men.  Joan was just one more example of the exceptional woman whose expertise is trotted out when it’s convenient or needed to verify the place of some man in her life and to serve his ends, and whatever experiences she has, whatever knowledge she has acquired, must first be vetted by a man before it can be accepted as real.  

And then there are all the intersectional casting issues with this episode, which I don’t even think I’m qualified to get into here.

Anyway, yes, I love this show, but this episode was terribly problematic.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

Though the streets of London are dark, dismal, and
threatening, Owen has created a vividly illustrated cast of characters in The Quick, a novel that traces its grim
roots to Stoker, Wilde, and other authors of the now-famous Victorian
period.  In a city where the undead
stalk the streets and prey on the unawares, Owen’s creations burn brightly to
the bitter end.  And beyond. 

begins modestly as the story of
Charlotte and James Norbury, young children growing up in a great empty house
in Yorkshire with a rotating cast of governesses and servants to raise them
while their father is in London on business.  He returns to Askew Hall only in time to pass away, and for
his sister to take over management of the estate.  The Quick is a
novel in three parts, and for some readers it may feel a bit too disjointed,
but is worth the effort to meet the many compelling personalities in and about
London.  Many years pass and
readers are introduced to James as a young man, finishing at Oxford, going to
live in London to be a writer, and taking an apartment with another young man,
Christopher Page.  And things
spiral deeper and deeper into the dark side of London.

spins her tale of undead existing among the living with care, hiding away her
secrets like the painting hung behind a door at the top of the stairs,
parceling out information in hints that will keep the reader interested even
over the course of the novel’s 500-plus pages.  In revelation after revelation, Owen builds her case for the
undead like Sherlock Holmes himself—when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  When, after the death of their aunt, Charlotte
can’t get in touch with James, she travels to London and instead finds quite a
different situation than she’d expected, and must make decisions she’d never
thought possible. 

The Quick is not just another novel
about vampires, but is a long exploration of the nature of desire: how it can
influence people in ways they could never have anticipated.  Readers of classic English literature
will enjoy the deft touch Owen shows when developing the mood and atmosphere of
her novel and its homage to Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker.  Those who enjoy seeing an idea
developed from multiple points of view, with care paid to how the same
situation can be viewed differently depending one’s relation to it, will be
attracted to the individuals of the story and how they move through the
plot.  Even though she hides Charlotte
away for nearly a third of the novel, Owen builds out her cast of characters
with strongly developed and interesting women, refreshing in a type of story
generally dominated by men. Both the women and men are drawn to the center of
the plot, forced to rely on their wits and talents to survive.  The final third of the novel is perhaps
drawn out more than necessary, but The
is still an engrossing and compelling read.