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The Formula for Murder by Carol McCleary – Review – Douglas R. Cobb
When does science cross over into madness? Does the madness come first, or does an obsession with science sometimes lead to madness? Carol McCleary examines these questions and brings the historical Figure of the indomitable Nellie Bly to life in The Formula for Murder and her entire series of novels featuring this pioneer of feminism, who proved by her real-life adventures and exploits that she was the equal, or better, of any man when it came to being a crime reporter. This is the third book in McCleary’s series, and in it, the muckraking reporter journeys to England to identify and bring back the deceased body of a fellow journalist, her friend and protegé, Hailey McGuire. Hailey’s death is believed by the police to be the result of a suicide, but Nellie does not think that Hailey would have done such a thing, so she launches her own investigation of the matter.
The author makes Nellie Bly come alive by recreating the era and societal mores of the time. Nellie’s struggles to succeed as a female journalist in a largely male-dominated occupation are depicted by Carol McCleary in each of the novels she’s written about Bly. Nellie became famous for going undercover, to expose the unethical practices at an insane asylum, getting herself committed to it in order to write an expose. She also, as McCleary’s novels of her life mention, went undercover as a prostitute, became a servant to see first-hand how servants were often treated, and she even broke the fictional record of 80 days that Jules Verne wrote that it took to travel around the world in his novel Around the World in 80 Days.
In The Formula for Murder, Bly reunites with her old friend, the scandalous author Oscar Wilde. He tells her about his latest novel, The Portrait if Dorian Grey, and relates his theory to Nellie about why people want to defy the aging process, and stay as youthful-looking as possible. Bly knows that Hailey, who might have been pregnant at the time she died, had been investigating the mysterious occurrences a Dr. Lacroix and his associate, Dr. Radic, at the Bath spa.
Were they also behind Hailey’s death, and that of a wealthy socialite? What sort of bizarre experiments might they be conducting, involving blood, that might have caused the death of the young daughter of a prostitute? The death had been determined by Dr. Lacroix to be the result of a “brain fever,” yet she had been perfectly healthy before she had entered the spa with her mother. Had her life been sacrificed in the name of science?
Novelist H.G. Wells, who had been assisting Dr. Lacroix with some of his earlier research, wonders to what extent the good doctor and Radic have perhaps gone beyond the boundaries of science, himself. He and Nellie join forces to investigate each of the deaths, and try to determine if they are linked in any way. Wells has fairly modern notions about human sexuality, and hits on Nellie, who is attracted by him but believes that a man and woman hsould be married before engaging in sex. Will she be able to resist the charms of Wells for very long, or will she succumb to them in their joint quest for the truth behind the murders?
Along the course of their investigations, the pair travel to the dangerous moors and bogs of Dartmore. It is both where the rejuvenating mud that Lacroix and Radic use in their spa treatments comes from, and is also the home of the legendary black Beasts of Dartmoor, which provided the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous tale, “The Hound of Baskervilles.” The visit Doyle’s house, and consult with him in an effort to learn if there is a kernel of reality behind the tales of the Balck Beast, and to get his insights on the murders.
Someone does not want the truth to come out, though. Bly is being shadowed, and the person hired to watch her activities has a boss who will do whatever it takes to prevent Nellie, or anyone else, from exposing him. Is the murderer Hailey’s lover, who murdered her when she got pregnant to silence her? Is it the two doctors, who didn’t want the unethical nature of their research to be revealed to the public? Or, is someone else behind the mysterious murders?
The Formula for Murder by Carol McCleary is the best book yet in the author’s Nellie Bly series. Nellie’s determined to get to the bottom of what really happened to her friend and why she was murdered. The interactions Bly has with famous people like Wilde, Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are very realistically portrayed by McCleary, and they add an extra dimension to the book. It can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, but I highly recommend the entire series to anyone who loves page-turning mysteries, especially ones based on real-life historical figures. I can’t wait for the next Nellie Bly book to be published. Once you read this one, and the others in the series, you’ll feel the same way.