Review: The Devil’s Grin by A. Wendeberg

OVERALL:

I really enjoyed this book! It was about the play of practicality and moral ambiguity that can lie at the heart of the most groundbreaking sciences. The character has to not only make tough choices, but ends up knowingly on the wrong side of her own ethics to bring the group behind the crimes to justice. It ends on a cliffhanger, so I will be bringing you the review of the second book at some point in the near future!

HOW I FOUND THIS BOOK:

The free eBook club I belong too had another book written by this author listed. Since a “to read” list current north of 100 books is obviously long not enough, I typically snag 4-6 free books every time I see one of those fliers. In the case of this author, I read the summary of the free novel, and decided it was interesting but not currently essential to own. But in the summary she mentioned that it was separate from her “Victorian Mystery” series. With a groan – Historical Mysteries are my kryptonite – I hunted that series down and immediately snagged this book, the first book in the Kronberg Thriller series. So my reading this book was a complete fluke, but has proved to be serendipitous.

MY AMAZON REVIEW:

The Devil's Grin

AS A READER:

I would NEVER have grabbed this book if I knew it involved Sherlock Holmes. This is not because of an antipathy to Holmes – on the contrary it is because he was my very first love. The Holmes of the printed page, as well as most of the actors who portrayed him, figured prominently in my pre-teen and teenage fantasies. Oh, who am I kidding, even now I get a flutter when I watch Sherlock and Elementary.

But with the expectations of that long crush also comes the strong possibility of disappointment. I have MY Holmes, and woe betide the authors who fail to live up to that complicated man.

But this is not a book to disappoint the Holmes aficionado. It even passed the muster of the Sherlock Holmes Society in London.

The main character is the brilliant doctor, Anton Kronberg, a forerunner in the newly developing field of Bacteriology. Since it’s given away in the blurb, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Anton the cover-identity developed by a woman born as Anna, allowing her to attend university and utilize her ferocious intellect in a time when her sex provided a barrier to nearly every ambition. In her role as doctor and bacteriologist, she is called in by Scotland Yard to determine if the remains of a man found in London’s Reservoir are those of a cholera victim, and provide the procedures to make the water safe so that half of London is not infected by the dread disease. Also called to the crime scene is one Sherlock Holmes, investigating how the man came to be in the reservoir in the first place.

Holmes’s character is not as perfect as other portrayals, although it satisfies the romantic in me. He is slightly too prone to emotion for a man many have arm-chair diagnosed with Asperger’s, too concerned over Anna’s involvement in this case for a known misogynist. There is an explanation given, and it’s always clear that it’s not ANNA who is provoking the emotion, but rather Holmes’s own disinclination to endanger anyone but himself.

But the record of his skills are captured well through the eyes of an observer as astute as he is, and he was given a complexity that is lies beyond Arthur Conon Doyle’s pages.

Kronberg and Holmes work together – although not smoothly or without conflict – to uncover a chilling crime that draws on several real-day events and the realities of 1890’s London.

AS A WRITER:

I adored the almost perfect use of dialect, setting, sentence structure and other details to firmly place this story in the late Victorian.

There were a few words that jerked me out of the story. She uses “underpants”, a term not in common useage until the 1920’s. During the 1880’s they would have been termed “undergarments” or “bloomers”. The author also writes “I fought the urge to puke” at one point – this is a term that has been in use since Shakespeare’s time but it sits incongruously on the lips of a medical professional, trained in America though she may have been.

But those are a few terms in an ocean of getting it exactly right.

As a scientist who has dabbled in microbiology on my way to genetics, I easily followed the doctor’s discoveries and techniques, but I don’t believe that understanding to be a prerequisite. As someone who works with the FDA for my job, I found this book chilling.

SPOILER!!! (Highlight to reveal text)

It brought to mind the case of Henrietta Lacks, the immortal woman. She was the unwitting donor of a cluster of cervical cancer cells that proved to be able to replicate and grow long after Mrs. Lacks succumbed to the remainder of her cancer. Her contributions to medical science have grown with them, and so she is the savior of many lives. However she was not given a choice in the matter – consent was a nicety, not a pre-requisite to scientific research in the 50’s.

And of course it draws a direct parallel to the men of Tuskegee, which cruelly left 400 men untreated and uninformed about their syphilis to study the progress of the disease in an age where penicillin was already known to be an effective treatment.

And that was known because of the 1940’s Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments where inmates, insane asylum patients and others were deliberately infected BY UNITED STATES PHYSICIANS with syphilis, malaria and a host of other diseases to test penicillin. There were at least 84 known fatalities. These and other experiments were used by the Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremburg as justification for their own inhumanities.

So the events of this novel are not far-fetched, and certainly not unprecidented even for the era they’re set in. They’re emblematic of a past we can never forget, set against the backdrop of a Arthur Conan Doyle-style mystery.

In Wendeberg’s book, there is another, even MORE sinister plot behind the crimes, and the promise is that those will be explored in the next book. I can hardly wait!

**************************************************************************

UPDATE! Ah! I forgot this the first time! You can find A. Wendeberg’s “The Devil’s Grin” on Amazon, and other books by her there as well. You can also follow her at her blog, and on Twitter.

Next up is Caitlin Doughty’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium” and then it’s Casia Schreyer’s “Nothing, Everything, Nothing“.

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