Trash Lit: Nellie Bly meets old-school hacker in "The Alchemy of Murder"

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The Alchemy of Murder
Carol McCleary
Forge, 365 pp. $24.99

Nice effort for a first novel. A fun premise, fairly well executed. Nellie Bly, the famous (for real) investigative reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, goes to Paris in 1898, just as the World’s Fair is attracting throngs of tourists, to catch a brutal murderer.

The guy’s apparently a doctor, and has been hacking up girls and taking away parts of their bodies. Now he’s going about his nasty business in a city that’s not only overwhelmed with the fair (and trying to hush up the killings to avoid bad publicity) but in the throes of an epidemic of something called Black Fever.

The authorities think the fever is spread by miasma rising from the sewers. The anarchists, who control the Montmarte section of the city, think it’s a plot by the rich to kill the poor. And of course, as McClearly points out about Montmarte, “the immorality and depravity of its bohemian inhabitants is a scandal known throughout the world.” Bly runs into Louis Pasteur, Jules Verne (who she eventually sleeps with), Oscar Wilde, Louise Michel and a host of other characters from late 19th century Paris as she chases around, putting herself forward as bait for the killer.

McCleary isn’t terribly kind to the anarchists, but there’s a lot of (relatively) accurate historical description of the politics of the time, with ample references to Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Haymarket Square. And the scenes in Montmart, the Pasteur Institute and the Parisian sewers are worth the price of admission – even if the eventual plot twist, involving an anarchist attempt at biowarfare with anthrax, plague and cholera – is a bit of a stretch.

Lesbian sex in a café with ample absinthe. Blow jobs in another café. A bladder filled with plumbers acid that gets sprayed on a bad guy’s dick. Sex with Jules Verne. Lectures by the radical Ms. Michel. I wouldn’t sell it as a history book, but as an entertaining mystery, it actually works.

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