The Alchemist's Daughter
The latest trend in mystery novels seems to be a writing device I call “land them in the middle”. When done well this can mean the reader enters the tale just as things are really starting to happen, which increases the action factor and keeps the pace of the story brisk. Many times however I find that what happens is what occurred with this book – I find myself fruitlessly searching for the first book in the series and finding out that the book I am reading is the first book in the series.
Bianca Goddard is a woman in unusual circumstances for Tudor England. She is an independent business owner, having set up her own apothecary. She learned from her father, an alchemist, how to distill chemicals and from her mother the art of herbs. She has combined the two to create her own salves and remedies in a small rent in in London’s squalid Southwark slum. The odors from her shop often vie with the odors from the street in pungency but she is happier there than at home. Her father, a devout Catholic, had been accused of plotting to poison the King for his religious reformations. According to the book “Bianca had risked her own life to prove he had been wrongly accused and for that peril, she had yet to forgive him.” This is the moment that had me scouring the web for the story that did not exist. Back to this tale.
So Bianca is a young, single woman living on her own in Tudor England and running the 1540s equivalent of a pharmacy because her dad pissed her off. She has a suitor who is interested in marrying her but she doesn’t think she wants to commit to that. Marriage means children and children mean giving up her human experimentation, er, chemical experiments and she doesn’t want to. As they are mildly bickering over the issue while not enjoying a bad cup of tea, one of Bianca’s local friends comes in, complaining of stomach cramps. Bianca gives her a restorative and before you can cry, “Don’t drink that!” the girl falls over dead.
This being Tudor England the police and coroner basically come into the room, take a vague look at the body and determine it was a murder committed by Bianca. For whatever reason she is not arrested on the spot but instead the copper attempts to apprehend her after the funeral. This attempt fails primarily because the folks attending the event accuse him of not having conducted an investigation (he hadn’t) and they demand he do so. In the interest of preventing a riot he assures them he will look into the matter and then arrest Bianca. Since Bianca already has experience proving innocence (the case of her father being falsely accused) she determines to do so again and keep herself from the hangman’s noose.
There are a lot of issues that I struggled with from the start of the novel. I couldn’t understand where Bianca, who had no family backing, got the money for everything she needed for her shop. Setting up business wasn’t as easy in Tudor England as it is today and the financial issues that should have governed her life seemed to barely be a blip on her radar. I could certainly believe in an older woman establishing a business with a clientele she had garnered by selling remedies out of her home but I didn’t understand a very young woman being able to do the same.
Bianca’s very modern attitudes to marriage and business were also disconcerting. Marriage for love did not become an accepted idea until the 1700s and yet Bianca was contemplating her marriage to John in that light. And not just her marriage to John – she couldn’t understand why the King’s heart was so fickle and disliked her father because he didn’t love and respect her mother. Her ability to run her own business at a time when woman were raised to expect a different life was never really explained. She enjoyed doing it and I think we were expected to believe that that was reason enough to fly in the face of convention.
When the author did choose to indulge in history she used what I’ve heard termed “horrible history”. We hear of rats, plague, dung, boils, muckraking (literal, not figurative), the wives of King Henry (living and dead) and other such niceties fairly regularly. Toothache cures involving rusty nails and rat eating abound. People are endlessly walking in offal or having to kick mouse skeletons out of the way. In fairness, some other factors of the period were addressed, such as the closing of the convents and monasteries meaning there was one less resource for the poor. However those issues were looked at with nowhere near the length and frequency that the filth was.
As far as the mystery goes, we know from the beginning what the likely cause of the murder was. I also felt it was pretty clear who the players in the little conspiracy would be although I was not sure why. It certainly wasn’t a badly done whodunit but it wasn’t one that would keep you guessing to the end.
I think this book will work for those who enjoy modern characters in their historical novels and who also enjoy historical mysteries. If neither of those appeal to you I would look elsewhere for entertainment.