Review: Things In Jars by Jess Kidd

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A mystery set in Victorian London with the perfect blend of feisty female detective, ghost story, magical realism and a dash of romance thrown in for good measure.

Using two timelines, 1863 and the early 1840’s, Things In Jars tells the story of Bridget (Bridie) Devine…

“A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap.”

Jess Kidd, Things In Jars (Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd., 2019), p. 10

Bridie, a private detective, is hired by Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick to find his daughter, 6 year old Christabel. Bridie quickly discovers that Christabel is herself shrouded in mystery – no one knows who her mother is, her existence has been kept secret from all but a trusted family friend, Doctor Harbin and the child’s nurse, Mrs. Biddy. The other servants whisper about special powers, mist manifesting in the house on the sunniest of days and copious amounts of snails being drawn to the estate by the bucketful.

As Bridie continues her investigation, she is supported by the most interesting and captivating cast of characters I have had the pleasure of meeting: a seven-foot tall housemaid who shaves, a ghost covered in tattoos that move as his mood changes and an eccentric apothecary. Based on my description, you may assume that these are simply caricatures used to further the fantastical parts of the story and while they do accomplish that, Jess Kidd brings these characters to life – you care about them, you root for them…….you FEEL something for each of them. They are so much more than caricatures or plot devices. No deus ex machina here!

Woven into the story is the Victorian fascination with the odd and unexplained. This is the birth place of the “freak show” which thrived from the 1840’s until 1914 (John Woolf, “The Greatest Show On Earth? The Myths Of the Victorian Freak Show”, BBC History Revealed, 2019). Embedded within the broader entertainment profession, this fascination generated a darker cottage industry where those that were “other” were sometimes kidnapped, imprisoned and forced to publicly display their “otherness” for the profit of their keepers.

It becomes apparent early on that Bridie is familiar with this world of exploitation and fights to defend those that cannot defend themselves. We learn early in the story that Sir Edmund is a collector of oddities, more specifically, oddities related to the water. One of his servants confirms Bridie’s suspicion…

“He has a whole library of books about the things that swim in the water and the things that crawl out of it, ma’am.” Agnes wrinkles her nose. “There are things in jars“.

Jess Kidd, Things In Jars (Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd., 2019), p. 69

As Bridie continues to be drawn into the mystery of Christabel, we learn more about her own history and what has shaped her into a woman who…….

“…speaks as she finds, judges no woman or man better or worse than her, feels deeply the blows dealt to others and can hold both her drink and a tune.”

Jess Kidd, Things In Jars (Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd., 2019), p. 17

I care for these characters thanks to Jess Kidd’s amazing writing and while I want to see where Bridie’s next adventure might take her and her cast of lovable supporters, I would be equally happy to leave them right where they are. While the mystery is solved at the end, not everything is wrapped up in a nice neat bow which leaves me with a feeling of endless possibilities as I use my own imagination to envision the possible stories that could unfold for Bridie. Not a bad place to end at all.

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