Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF FOSKETT, M. R. C. Kasasian: Victorian Dark Humor and Crime

THE CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF FOSKETT is the second in the Victorian England crime-solving series of detective Sidney Grice and his ward -- and although reading the first book, Murder in Mangle Street, isn't actually necessary, it would save you from the errors that dogged my reading of the first few chapters. Grasping right away that the novel resembled a grim Sherlock Holmes reality show (dirt, spoiled food, discomfort), I assumed Grice's ward was male, like Watson. It wasn't until the third chapter that I realized this "March Middleton" narrator was female. As you can tell, it shook the universe my "reader's eye" had been constructing.

But I kept thinking I was in the midst of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche -- recognizing phrases like the "engineer's thumb" for example -- for a few more chapters. In fact, I felt as though I were on the far side of a train window, trying to make sense out of lip-reading half of a conversation. The stunningly nasty comments that detective Sidney Grice makes, his often-described infected eye socket with glass eye, the grotesque conditions and bluntly described dirt and stench of this "world," and March Middleton's unfortunate slowness to catch on to the plot twists (Grice isn't a lot faster) kept me dog-paddling in a lake of misunderstanding for a long time.

And yet ... I couldn't stop reading. A reviewer of the first book said it hadn't appealed much to the heart, and that's probably just as true for this one -- trust me, you don't want to identify with anyone in these pages! -- yet March Middleton has a stubborn persistent courage, even though she has little other choice, and I liked her gradual assertion of her own worth and her outreach for some kindness in her gray, grim life. She rarely pauses to feel sorry for herself -- there is too much going on. Grice is being paid to step into a "death club" where he cannot stop the deaths from taking place, and he quickly decides the whole disaster is actually all an attack on him -- which March can clearly see fits his vanity.

Kasasian's writing is fluid and his images and plot twists are vivid and surprising. Once I'd managed to let go of all Holmesian expectations, I found the rather shocking scenes to be freshly surprising:
The moment we appeared our visitor jumped up and grasped my guardian's hand.

"Mr Grice. It is such a thrill to meet you. I have read so much about you in the newspapers."

"You will have been hard pressed to find an accurate fact then," Sidney Grice told him.

"And you must be Miss Middleton." Mr. Green compressed my hand in his. "I believe you helped Mr. Grice solve the Ashby stabbing case."

My guardian adjusted his eye. "She may have accompanied me on that case," he said, "but I can assure you she was nothing but a hindrance. Ring for tea, Miss Middleton."

"I shall try my idiotic best." I pulled the bell rope twice as the two of them sat facing each other, then got myself an upright chair. ... "I can smell something," I said, but both men ignored me.
The further I read, the more parallels I found to having fallen down a rabbit hole, or having met a very dark version of Jasper Fforde -- literary allusions, outrageous metaphors, symbols and clues that mean something far different from first impression. If you've read the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you know it's far more vicious than the cartoon visions. So is the gruesome Victorian England in which Grice and March Middleton investigate.

And that, finally, makes this one of the more original and surprising mysteries I've read recently! Recommended for those who want to move beyond the Holmes we've known, to the brute necessities of his time and place -- but not for the faint of heart, and definitely not (despite the attractive cover) for any young impressionable readers who might carry the book's nightmare qualities into their sleep.

[No author website at present, but an insightful interview with the author here.]

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