The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief

I loved this. I loved it so much that I let out a happy little yip and hit request immediately when I saw its sequel pop up on Netgalley, and another when I got it – I can’t wait.

Lisa Tuttle has worked with George R.R. Martin, so I would expect her to know what she’s doing, and she does. She knows how to build characters without bending herself or her narrative into knots to make sure I picture them just as she wants me to; the main characters of this book are excellent companions. Miss Lane and Mr. Jasper Jesperson, striving to build a private investigation practice in 1893 London, are neither of them perfect. As the book begins, she has fled a position with a psychical research group upon discovering that a woman in whom she had perfect faith, a friend, was planning to conduct a fraudulent séance; I kept wanting to poke the author, or the character, asking if they didn’t want to make some kind of stand against such fakery or something? At first it felt cowardly of Miss Lane, although I surely understood her feelings of betrayal. In the end, where her moonlight flit could have seemed like an out-of-character maneuver included solely to put chess pieces in place for the next move – it didn’t. It made sense – and because it made sense and worked for the character, the rest of the plot evolves organically from it.

And as for Mr. Jesperson – he is a bit arrogant, a bit of a Sherlock Holmes-wanna-be, a bit over-focused on his own ends… but as it turns out, he has reason to be a bit arrogant, and good cause to expect to emulate Holmes – and his vision isn’t so tunneled that he can’t see a child in distress. The kitten incident was a beautiful illustration of his abilities and capabilities.

And his mother is terrific.

The writing has an effortless-seeming clarity that makes the pages fly by. The author manages the disparate elements of the plot like an expert juggler, keeping all the balls in the air until they fall neatly into their places. I love the way the climax of the action is handled. The left hand (and the reader) doesn’t really know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand can’t let the left know without sabotaging the whole plan. Miss Lane is put into a position where she has to accept the possibility that her new partner has let her down at least as badly as her last friend and partner. And Mr. Jesperson has to handle the situation with an aplomb and pragmatism that would do Holmes proud.

Another area where the writing shines is what feels like effortless exposition – or withholding of exposition. Just enough of the characters’ stories are told to make them extremely engaging while still leaving lots of ground for future books to cover (lots of future books, I hope). I love that there are lots of things in both Miss Lane’s and Mr. Jesperson’s pasts that aren’t detailed – including in their shared past, as some of their very first cases are alluded to like the Giant Rat of Sumatra (“the curious affair of the deodand”). (Wow – I never heard of a deodand before- what a fascinating thing.) I love that … shall we say, to avoid spoilers, the origin of a certain, er, fashion accessory is never, ever provided. Why does Miss Fox wear an eyepatch? I have no idea. And what’s lovely about it is that no one ever asks, and Miss Lane never explains. It would, after all, be indelicate to discuss it. Fantastic.

Best of all, the author knows how to avoid that thing that has been driving me straight up the wall so much lately: recapping. So, so many books lately feature characters doing something, and then meeting someone who wasn’t there and telling them all about it, or simply thinking about what happened a couple of chapters ago – during which the writer thoughtfully provides her apparently amnesiac reader with a summarization of those events, sometimes using just the same phrasings. Lisa Tuttle doesn’t do this. “I gave him all the details, finishing just as we reached the station.” I could just hug her for that.

I’ve been making note of a few fun names that have popped up in this year’s books – like the one which used my name, except flipped, and the Mad Men character n WWII London. Here there is a set of twins named Amelia and Bedelia – and the Amelia Bedelia books (about a very Mary Poppins-ish lady, as I recall) were a staple of my early childhood. I wonder if that was on purpose.

It’s such a great title – and I love that “psychic thief” doesn’t mean what you might first think it means. And the somnambulism is a great deal of (sometimes very creepy) fun. (And I adore that cover.)

Yay, there is a second book – and I have it.

Great quote, and … well, yeah:
Why the dead should wish to communicate with the living in such a bizarre and roundabout way—materializing flowers, playing trumpets, rapping on tables—rather than sending straightforward messages through their mediums was a question no true believer would ask.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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