World’s first woman journalist investigates a murder mystery in 1889 Paris.

Page count: 565
Publication year: 2009
Format: Print
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Illustrations by Edouard Cucuel

The book is mostly set in 1889 Paris during the World Fair and an epidemic of Black Fever. It’s supposed to be the main character Nellie Bly’s manuscript which has been now found and published. There are even some footnotes from the Editors which usually tell more about things that are only lightly touched on or what happened later to other characters.

The book starts in Paris where Nellie is in disguise as a prostitute and following the man she thinks is responsible for killing several women, mostly prostitutes. Then it jumps back to the start of Nellie’s career; how she got a job as a reporter because of her determination and because she’s a woman and can go to places where male reporters can’t go. One of her first stories is about the apalling conditions in a mental institution for women, the Blackwell’s Island. She pretends to be crazy and spends two weeks in the institution as a patient. There, she also encounters the mysterious Dr. Blum who is murdering the patients and throwing the bodies away. Unfortunately, Nellie doesn’t get a clear look at the Doctor, only a vague outline of a broad man with a black bear and long hair. She manages to escape his clutches but nobody believes her story.

The Doctor moves to London where he brutally cuts up several women. Nellie follows him and helps the police. Unfortunately, the man manages to flee, this time to Paris and Nellie follows him again.

After about eighty pages of Nellie’s previous career and adventures, we return to Paris where Nellie is convinced that she has just witnessed Dr. Blum killing another woman. However, the police doesn’t believe her and instead arrest her. She manages to escape and realizes that she will need a partner for the first time in her life. She’s always admired Jules Verne and read his books, so she turns to him for help. Unfortunately, Mr. Verne isn’t interested in helping her and she has to lie to get him even to talk to her. Eventually, Verne reluctantly agrees to help her and together they set out to search Paris for the mysterious man. Paris is suffering under the attack of the virulent Black Fever which is killing especially the poor people.

Most of the book is told in first person by Nellie. However, there are short but crucial passages in third point-of-view which tell about Dr. Pasteur’s and his assistants research about the Black Fever, and even the villains’ doings. No explanation is given for the inclusion of the scenes which Nellie isn’t present.

Nellie is a passionate and determined woman, and she has to be in order to get her job and then keep it. All the time, the men around her underestimate her and try to keep her safe. Some even tell her flat out that she should be at home caring for her (non-existent) husband and kids. She has to be very convincing to get men to believe her. The Paris police dismiss her out of hand although Nellie thinks that’s at least in part because they don’t want to disrupt the Fair and cause a panic.

Jules Verne is here in his sixties. He’s shaven his customary beard and is in Paris somewhat incognito. He tells Nellie that he’s there “to kill a man”. However, almost against his better judgment he’s drawn to the case and once he’s convinced that Dr. Blum must be stopped, he’s determined to do it. Still, for a famous author he’s pretty glum. He also constantly antagonized Nellie with his sexist opinions.

Dr. Pasteur is mostly doing his own research about microbiology and isn’t as involved as Verne. Oscar Wilde does appear but after the halfway point of the book.

The book has some illustrations by Edouard Cucuel which were apparently published in Bohemian Paris of Today in 1900. They complement nicely McCleary’s descriptions of the famous Parisian places such as the Moulin Rouge, Café Procope, and Le Chat Noire. Unlike most historical novels I’ve read, Nellie doesn’t move among the upper class but instead among the poor and the middle-class, and McCleary describes them well. Occasionally, Nellie reminds us about the differences in attitudes of the reader and the characters. For example, back then hospitals were only for poor people; doctors made house calls to other people. Also, many doctors simply don’t believe in Pasteur’s tiny animals and don’t wash hands between patients.

Anarchists play also a large part in the book. They threaten Paris with bombings and make passionate speeches on the street. Louise Michel and her group make an appearance.

Despite the descriptions of poverty and suffering, this isn’t a serious history book. It has an outrageous plot and the characters don’t really shine except for Nellie herself. Still, it’s fun, I enjoyed it, and I’m very likely to continue to the next one where Nellie travels around the world in 72 days.