REVIEW: The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway by Karina Cooper
Dear Ms. Cooper:
It’s said that every superhero must have an origin story, and Cherry St. Croix’s story is worthy of a superhero. Born wealthy, orphaned and raised poor, Cherry St. Croix is a young woman of fifteen, learning how to comport herself in polite London society of the 1800s, rather than the circus she was rescued from. Addicted to the opiates administered by a very watchful governess, Cherry needs more and more of the drug to feed the addiction – and she needs more and more coin to feed her reading and scientific addictions as well – something she cannot do on the little pin money allotted. With those mercenary aims in mind, she turns to collecting – an early form of bounty hunting – as a way to earn the money she needs. Her first collection sets the tone for the rest of her career to date – a mystery wrapped in a conundrum and tied with the enigmatic bow that is Micjah Hawke, ringmaster of the notoriously infamous Midnight Menagerie pleasure garden. While the collection, on the surface, seems to be a simple retrieval of a man deeply in debt, she quickly finds things aren’t quite that simple, especially when young Irish women go missing in rather large numbers.
I absolutely love the depiction of Cherry as a somewhat cocky, overly confident fifteen year old with delusions of grandeur. What I love even more is the fact that Cherry had the intestinal fortitude to actually pull her plots and plans off; even when things go so horridly pear-shaped that she isn’t quite sure which way is up. It is her very first lesson in the adage that things are not always what they seem. The image of young Cherry, clad in clothes swiped from her butler, venturing into an area rife with the lower class ladies of the evening – and the subsequent chat with one of said ladies – had me laughing out loud at the littlest collector’s sheer consternation. I can’t quite decide if her success was due to some innate skill or the sheer, dumb luck that dictates most human beings don’t eat their young.
The introduction of Fanny, Cherry’s governess / mother substitute, Booth, the butler, and Besty, the lady’s maid / friend, make for a deeper, more rich story. The care and handling of a heretofore somewhat wild Cherry makes for some interesting times, especially considering that it seems no one can keep Cherry where she doesn’t wish to be. Fanny certainly gives off the impression of the prim and proper governess, but I sensed a little more to her story – more that I want to learn. Of the secondary characters, she is the one who piqued my interest.
The one part where I was a touch squeamish was the opiate addiction. It is faintly horrific to me that parents would give their children opiates under the mistaken notion that they were helping them, that it was medicine. And I know my squeamishness is a product of the modern times and upbringing – laudanum was, back in the “olden days,” considered the equivalent of our Advil or Tylenol; it was the cure for all illnesses from a cough to a fever to broken limbs. Some of the inherent horror threading through your stories comes from the idea that the medicine was given to Cherry during her time with the circus to keep her quiet, biddable and addicted. Learning about her childhood addiction turns quite a few things around so I see details from the novels in a different light. Things make much more sense now.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable tale threaded through with adolescent mischief that hints at the darkness to come into Cherry’s life later on. The chance to see our heroine’s origin, to understand her better, gives us a better picture of what makes Cherry St. Croix the sometimes unlikable, always interesting woman she is.
Thank you for allowing us to see a bit behind the curtain! B
This is a 29,000 word novella.