The fantasy and science fiction written in Victorian times has a very male bias. Often, novels only feature women as cooks or maids or worse. In modern, more enlightened times, much of the fantasy and science fiction set in Victorian times are a whole let misogynist. Which can only be a good thing. In The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, the protagonists are female and male detectives, and while some characters within this novel act surprised by Miss Lane’s chosen profession, the fact that she’s a woman is not a barrier to a cracking page-turner of a mystery.
Miss X is a leading light in the Psychical Society and Miss Lane is her friend and collaborator, until the latter discovers the former is a fraud. She ups sticks from Scotland and heads to London, not at all convinced she knows what tomorrow might bring. En route from the train station to an employment bureau, she finds herself swiftly in the employ of Mr Jasper Jesperson, detective, and with a room alongside the same and his mother. Times are tough, and cases aren’t so forthcoming. With some imagination and charm, the detectives almost conjure up a case out of nothing, from their landlord in exchange for rent. They are to look into a somnambulist and to find out why after many years the sleepwalking has returned. Soon, the detectives are investigating the disappearance of several mediums while a new star in the spiritualist world, America’s Mr Chase, is taking London by storm.
Tuttle’s story is a genuine mystery, set against the backdrop of the London’s society being fascinated with all things spiritual; mediums, ghosts, ectoplasm, disembodied heads and other psychic phenomena all get a moment to shine in the novel. The mystery itself is not really the point of the book. It is a who-done-it, but the point isn’t to figure it out so much as to enjoy the company of the story. Tuttle sends us on a clever misdirect for most of the book, with the re-introduction of Miss X and her replacement for Miss Lane; Signora Gallo is a psychic who can ‘read’ a person from personal objects, especially jewellery.
The villain of the piece is fairly clear as is the role of the somnambulist, and the climax no huge surprise. Victorians loved a show; a big climax, and Tuttle doesn’t disappoint. Said climax, set in a theatre has a few surprising turns but with the expected conclusion.
Some things don’t add up or are glossed over. The original case of the somnambulist was meant to pay the rent, but that issue is never mentioned again. When Miss X joins the case, mid-way through the story, there is some initial trepidation from Miss Lane, but the whole abandonment issue from the prologue and associated psychic fraud is barely acknowledged. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is told in first person by Miss Lane. It works really well as we only know what she knows and understands. We deduce clues pretty much as and when she does. However, in the last quarter of the book, events take an unpleasant turn for Miss Lane. Tuttle must explain what is going on to the reader so introduces diary entries ‘from the personal notebook of J.J. Jesperson Esq.’. This felt a little shoehorned, and might have worked better if introduced earlier.
However, these are minor issues within the book which don’t really dent the enjoyment of the story. Tuttle is as skilled in prose as she is in characterisation. Spending time with Mr Jesperson and Miss Lane, and the rest of the characters, was a delight. Their relationship – a bit of a Mulder and Scully – is expertly drawn. They are both flawed and they both know it too – Miss Lane admits she has to work on many elements of her personality and skillset. There are hints of further developments which need to be discussed in future tales – see the cat in the tree! The prose was an easy read, with the plot cracking along at a terrific pace. Tuttle writes it in the formal style you would expect in a Victorian detective novel, and it feels effortlessly precise. Tuttle’s skill is that the storytelling appears effortless as the plot moves around London and the cast of characters. I was never bored reading this book. I especially liked the fact that the main character was a female detective and that is wasn’t laboured on that she was a woman in a man’s world. Just an interesting, smart and pragmatic character doing her thing. There were plenty of other interesting characters for Lane and Jesperson to encounter, both male and female, and it was refreshing to see them characterised as just people, some interesting, some good, some flawed, but never made an issue of. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is less of a thought-provoking complex mystery, and more of a fun dance through spiritualism and Victoriana with a lot of heart and soul.
Originally published: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/07/the-curious-affair-of-the-somnambulist-and-the-psychic-thief-by-lisa-tuttle/