Things In Jars by Jess Kidd

Part Victorian detective story, part fantasy adventure and part Gothic horror, Jess Kidd's Things In Jars has an outstanding protagonist in Bridie Devine, a young, pipe-smoking Irish woman living in London and working as a forensic detective. Bridie Devine - she calls herself 'Mrs' and dresses in a widow's cap but we see no evidence that the late Mr Devine ever existed - saw her parents and her many siblings die before almost perishing herself as a child on her subsequent journey to England. After falling into the hands of various adults, all of whom are in some way heavily involved in working with corpses, she now makes a reasonable living of her own and employs a housemaid, Cora, who is seven feet tall.

The plot, ostensibly, involves Bridie's search for Christabel, a missing child from a wealthy household. It soon becomes clear that the child in question is not like others, however, and that this may hold the key to her disappearance. Why won't Christabel's father allow Bridie to see the child's nursery? And what's Christabel's link to Bridie's chequered past?

There's also another mystery to be solved. Bridie is haunted by the benevolent ghost of Ruby, a dead prize-fighter apparently visible only to her. She's initially annoyed by his presence but gradually starts to grow fond of him. Ruby insists that she knows him, but he won't tell Bridie how. Who is he, and why doesn't she recognise him?

Things In Jars is a dark, very funny slice of murky, occasionally grisly Gothic Victoriana, full of intrigue and adventure and with some elements of Irish folklore too. There are resurrection men who supply corpses to anatomists, a circus of freaks, grim medical procedures performed in public (Bridie disguises herself as a man in order to be allowed to watch surgical demonstrations), a psychopathic doctor and a truly horrible villain that would have made even Dickens recoil. All human life is here, and some not so human too. And yet there's a surprising warmth and charm to this book. Bridie herself is immense fun, and I found myself feeling really quite protective of her whenever she was in danger (which is often). Every single character, from the kindly to the grotesque, leaps from the page and the sense of time and place is incredibly powerful.

I raced through this book at speed, and leaving Bridie's world at the end felt like quite a wrench. It's a standalone book - Jess Kidd's other novels, which I'll certainly be reading soon, have different settings - but I can't help hoping that there might be room for a sequel.