The Formula for Murder is a historical mystery by Carol McCleary featuring real-life Victorian newspaper reporter Nellie Bly (available July 17, 2012).
History, mystery, murder, and mad science accompany plucky Victorian newspaper reporter Nellie Bly when she travels to the haunted moors of England to investigate the mysterious death of another journalist.
Refusing to believe the young writer committed suicide, Nellie travels from foggy Londontown to the ancient Roman ruins at Bath and the eerie landscape of Dartmoor in search of the truth. Stalked by a killer as she unravels the mystery behind a series of deaths, Nellie encounters a handsome young biology teacher named H. G. Wells, whose knowledge leads her into the realm of science gone mad.
Joined by Oscar Wilde, fleeing a sex scandal, and Arthur Conan Doyle, pursuing a legendary beast of the moors, Nellie struggles to stay alive as she hunts down a scientist who is trying to recreate in a test tube the work of God.
I don’t usually seek out mysteries with real historical figures as detectives, but I had to give The Formula for Murder a look because it featured crime reporter Nellie Bly as the first-person narrator. Bly, real name Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was a favorite of one of my college friends, who completed her Master’s degree in Journalism. Carol McCleary has written two previous books in this series, titled The Alchemy of Murder and The Illusion of Murder. I have not yet read those, but there are enough comments about the previous adventures—and even footnotes!—that it was easy enough to start with The Formula for Murder, whether you have any historical knowledge about Nellie Bly or not.
The Formula for Murder is set in 1890, and begins in a London morgue. It soon becomes clear that the story will focus on the difficulties of being a female journalist in that time period; Nellie has gone to bid goodbye to the corpse of a young woman who is thought to have committed suicide. Nellie’s connection is that she served as mentor to the dead woman, Hailey McGuire, lending a poignancy to the story.
Hailey was not just a dear friend, but a young woman who, like me, had struggled hard to get a job in the male dominated world of newspaper reporting. A product of an orphanage, without even a high school diploma, Hailey had been destined for work as a household servant or worse, the terrible life of a prostitute. Having fought tooth and nail to break into reporting, and having left high school myself before completion . . . I empathized with Hailey’s struggles. Actually, I was the person who first directed her toward working as a reporter after watching her testify at a court trial I was covering two years ago.
The criminal case was against a man who owned a service that referred household servants. He was accused of raping a young girl who had applied for servant work. Hailey had also applied through the agency and testified in court that the man had indecently touched her and she had fought back to avoid being raped. As I watched her on the witness stand, reading from a narration giving the precise time, date, and details of the incident, I realized her description of what had happened sounded like the newspaper articles I write—even down to the “rocky grammar” my first editor said I had. I spoke to her after court and began giving her small assignments to help me gather information and was delighted when she came back with not just what I had asked her for, but information that showed she had a nose for the news.
. . . I . . . prayed to God that I would prove that they were wrong about Hailey’s too gentle disposition, and that my insistence on pushing her into the line of fire as a reporter hadn’t so shattered her fragile disposition that she came to believe killing herself was less painful than facing life.
Nellie’s investigative skills, as she examines the body, quickly make it clear to her that Hailey was murdered. After more detective work, Nellie links the death to the story Hailey was working on, and soon after learns that she herself is now in danger.
McCleary takes full advantage of the time period. Aside from Nellie herself, several famous writers also appear in the story as characters: H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, and, with a definite nod to his fictional creation Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle; Doyle brings with his appearance some strange beasts in the wilds of Dartmoor. If you like your history mingled with investigative fiction, this might be a series for you!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
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