Nellie Bly was the pen name of pioneer female journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She is most famous for two daring feats: a record-breaking trip around the world in emulation of Jules Verne, and an exposé in which she faked insanity to study a mental institution from within. Now, first-time novelist, Carol McCleary, using these two historical events as bookends, weaves a remarkable suspense thriller wherein Nellie crosses the globe in search of a sadistic killer.
The adventure begins in Blackwell Island’s Lunatic Asylum where the intrepid reporter crosses path with Dr. Blum, a monster who murders several of the female patients in his private laboratory as part of some twisted anatomical experiments. Before Nellie can expose him, he fakes his own death and flees to England with the determined journalist hot on his trail. In London he resurfaces, publicly earning the name Jack the Ripper. More than ever Nellie is obsessed with seeing him captured and brought to justice.
Alas the elusive fiend escapes again, this time to Paris, the City of Lights, then in the midst of the grand 1889 World’s Fair. Aware of her own vulnerability in this strange setting, Nellie convinces the famous writer Jules Verne to join the hunt. Soon they are racing to and fro across the great metropolitan city coming in contact with such illustrious figures as Oscar Wilde, Toulouse Lautrec, and Louis Pasteur. The duo’s efforts ultimately reveal a grander evil behind the mad killer’s goals, one that will set loose a deadly biological plague capable of wiping out the entire population of the city before spreading throughout the world.
McLeary’s research is impeccable, and she marvelously captures the atmosphere and mores of the times as the Industrial Revolution was rapidly igniting a class struggle throughout the world. Anarchists of every flag were all too ready to blow things up. It was also a time when the role of women in society had begun to evolve with women like Nellie setting the course. Yet the joy in this depiction is that McLeary doesn’t fall to the temptation of making the feisty reporter a larger-than-life feminist Amazon. Instead she brings forth a winning, lovable soul eager to explore all that life has to offer. Her Nellie is both a daring pioneer and at the same time a true product of her times and upbringing. It is this tough-sweetness that comes through and makes The Alchemy of Murder a very gratifying experience in so many different ways.