“The Alchemy of Murder” by Carol McCleary, Forge Books, 2010. 368 ppg. $24.99.
Nellie Bly was an amazing woman, in real life and fiction. As one of the first female newspaper reporters and the first investigative reporter in the late 1800s, she became famous in her own time and for many years after, but is not well-known now. To redress this inequity, Cape Codder Carol McCleary has cast Nellie in her first mystery novel, with a series in the works.
In real life and in this novel, Nellie wants to work for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper. He won’t hire her, until she promises to get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on unsavory conditions there. She convincingly fakes insanity and is committed.
While there, according to the novel, she befriends a woman who is murdered by a shady “doctor.” Nellie swears to avenge her death and catch the killer. She follows him to London, where he’s called “Jack the Ripper,” and then to Paris in 1889, when the World’s Fair is being held. Nellie, under a pseudonym, mixes with the hoi polloi: prostitutes, artists, anarchists, in search of her mystery murderer. Nellie meets the world’s most infamous serial murderer, and stops his evil plot.
Along the way, but still focused, she loses her virginity in an affair with a well-known author and, as you might expect, she narrowly avoids being killed…to be saved by a very unlikely famous gay wit, Oscar Wilde.
Other real-life characters play important roles in this version of Nellie’s life: Jules Verne, microbe hunter Louis Pasteur, and absinthe-soaked Toulouse Lautrec. Everything is skillfully researched and written by Ms. McCleary.
She came to Martha’s Vineyard last Saturday to meet mystery devotees at the Oak Bluffs Library. Ms. McCleary told the audience she fell in love with Nellie after a friend gave her a copy of Nellie’s first book, “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” published after her newspaper expose, which resulted in reforms.
Like her heroine, Ms. McCleary admits to being terrible at grammar and spelling, but a good agent and editors saved her manuscript. She says that Nellie’s editor told her that her writing handicaps didn’t count because what she wrote “…comes from the heart.”
It’s a safe prediction that most readers will feel the passion and commitment of Nellie through Ms. McCleary’s writing.
Writing this first novel took her four and a half years. She just completed the second in much less time. It tells about another real-life Nellie adventure, when she sent herself, with only a few changes of underwear, on a round-the-world trip to beat the character in Jules Verne’s novel. But in this new book, titled “Illusion of Murder,” she’s tracked by a murderer.
Don Hinkle, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is the proofreader at The Times.