FOUL MATTER

Aiken at her most serious, with neither fluff nor suspense—in a gloomy, drifty, faintly gothic modern-novel (adultery, death, soul-searching) that occasionally sends up flares of charm and poignancy. The largely unsatisfactory narrator/heroine: Clytie Churchill, 35, a talented British achiever (novelist, cookbook-writer, catering tycoon) who recalls her busy, death-haunted love life during an all-night rap session with a French doctor at a chateau. (Don't ask how Clytie wound up there: it's a foolishly contrived—and ineffectual—setup.) Clytie's first great love was journalist Dan, whom she married soon after the suicide of his first wife, death-obsessed poet Ingrid; but, hours after the wedding, Dan committed suicide too, perhaps taking his baby son along on the doomed boat-ride. (Clytie thinks the son may still be alive somewhere.) Then came simultaneous affairs with the husbands of Clytie's two best friends: tweedy architect Hugh, husband of maternal Elly; and sallow publisher George, husband of career-driven Chris. But, though both liaisons were initially dandy (with Elly and Chris cheerfully, unconvincingly, in the know), both men soon died—Hugh of lung cancer, George of an unspecified illness that made him mad, violent, then helpless. (In one of the book's best moments, his wife and mistress alternate reading Pride and Prejudice to the dying man.) And Clytie's most recent major affair has also been shadowed with death: five years back she loved local (Sussex) lawyer Anthony, whose pregnant wife had been killed in a motorcycle accident outside Clytie's house; but Anthony, a Catholic, angrily departed when he found out about Clytie's adulterous past. So now, unsurprisingly, Clytie is rather sour on love—and preoccupied with mortality. ("Goodbye, Anthony. Goodbye, my last love.") She is dubious about responding to the French doc's serious-minded courtship. And, after returning home to find her house burned to the ground (by Dan's crazy mother), she plans to open a pub in partnership with beautiful ex-prostitute Teddy. . . while Anthony becomes a monk. ("There's still a lot to do. . . . Promises to keep. Meals to cook. Friends to cherish.") Unfortunately, Clytie is a half-formed, unappealing Modern Woman—a shaky mix of feminism, enlightened promiscuity, sentimentality, and existential angst. The plotting, too, with its parade of violent demises and its halfhearted glimmers of mystery, is a rickety frame for serious thoughts on love and death. Still, for every creaky or pretentious moment, there's also a touching or disarming one (the supporting cast, the food-talk, the Sussex vignettes); and though Aiken fans won't find the usual pleasures here, they may be intermittently engaged by this uneven, ambitious blend of the morbid and the whimsical.

Pub Date: March 1, 1983

ISBN: 0385183712

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1983

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Creepy, violent, and propulsive; a standout gothic mystery.

THINGS IN JARS

Lady detective Bridie Devine searches for a missing child and finds much more than she bargained for.

Bridie Devine is no stranger to the seedy underworld of Victorian London. An accomplished detective with medical training, she sometimes helps the police by examining bodies to determine the cause of death. Bridie recently failed to find a lost child, and when she’s approached about another missing child, the daughter of Sir Edmund Berwick, she isn’t enthusiastic about taking on the case. But Christabel Berwick is no ordinary child. Sir Edmund has hidden Christabel away her whole life and wants Bridie to believe this is an ordinary kidnapping. Bridie does a little digging and learns that Christabel isn’t his daughter so much as his prized specimen. Sir Edmund believes Christabel is a “merrow,” a darker and less romanticized version of a mermaid. Bridie is skeptical, but there are reports of Christabel’s sharp teeth, color-changing eyes, and ability to drown people on dry land. Given that Bridie’s new companion is a ghost who refuses to tell her why he’s haunting her, Bridie might want to open her mind a bit. There’s a lot going on in this singular novel, and none of it pretty. Bridie’s London is soaked with mud and blood, and her past is nightmarish at best. Kidd (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, 2018, etc.) is an expert at setting a supernatural mood perfect for ghosts and merrows, but her human villains make them seem mundane by comparison. With so much detail and so many clever, Dickensian characters, readers might petition Kidd to give Bridie her own series.

Creepy, violent, and propulsive; a standout gothic mystery.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-2128-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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