Review: ‘The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl’ by Theodora Goss

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first whisperings of the three novels in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series can be found in Theodora Goss’ doctoral dissertation “The monster in the mirror: late Victorian Gothic and anthropology.” In fact, the members of the club–Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, Lucinda Van Helsing, and Lydia Raymond–often call themselves monsters because they were created by amoral mad scientists.

Athena club members and other primary characters in the series are drawn from (or inspired by) the works of H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Arthur Machen, and Oscar Wilde. The genius behind these multi-layered novels comes not only from their accuracy of the Victorian era and its literature but from the fact that Goss has taken characters from multiple books and fit them hand-in-glove into a delightfully inventive and readable series.

Several years ago, Goss told an interviewer, “What really inspired me was reading the original texts for my Ph.D. in English literature. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on late-19th-century gothic fiction and started noticing that there were a lot of mad scientists running around in the 19th century — and that a lot of those mad scientists either thought of creating or actually created female monsters.”

The monsters of the Athena Club–who often quibble with each other in specially formatted bits of conversation–about the progress of “The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl” solve mysteries using (somewhat) the approach of Mary Jekyll’s friend and mentor Sherlock Holmes. While their powers of deduction aren’t as pure as Holmes’, their special powers provide them with talents Holmes doesn’t have. (Inspector Lestrade doesn’t like them and they don’t like him.)

They react to bad things that happen; this time it’s the simultaneous disappearance of their household maid Alice, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and, as it turns out, a threat against the British empire. Near the end of the book, when the women in the club are admonished to stay out of of mischief, Mary Jekyll says, “We don’t get into mischief. It sort of happens to us, or around us, or in our general vicinity.”

Most readers will see that comment as an understatement and as part of the charm of the books. The Athena Club is not a covert black ops group but a family of good monsters who often finds itself trying to thwart the plans of evil monsters. In this series, the women prevail as those who are setting things to rights. On the way to saving the day, the Athena Club’s debates tend to keep everyone grounded, such as when Catherine Moreau, who’s ostensibly recording the group’s adventures, says, “You realize that to a puma, you’re all just meat?”

Sure, they can all kill each other, but going after the bad guys is more fulfilling.

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