By John MacLachlan Gray. St. Martin’s Minotaur, 295 pp, $26.95, hardcover
John MacLachlan Gray’s Not Quite Dead is billed as a Victorian-era thriller. But like his previous forays into the genre—The Fiend in Human and White Stone Day—there’s a lot more going on than the pondering of pale corpses in floppy cravats.
In addition to a typically rich setting, the best thing about Gray’s latest novel is that he shows only a passing interest in the conventional rhythms of a murder mystery. Thankfully, the bizarre butchery of an unscrupulous publisher in 1840s Philadelphia is of less concern than exploring the neurotic personalities that lie behind the courtly demeanour of Gray’s characters. And when those characters include a skittish Edgar Allen Poe and a stressed-out Charles Dickens, it’s no wonder that homicide takes a back seat to the droll musings of ink-stained wretches. Gray renders much that rings true in Not Quite Dead, but he is especially adept at chronicling the shabby indignities that result from trying to scratch out a living as a writer.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s no danger of things getting overly mannered. While the cordial niceties of Victorian society are strictly observed, Gray spices things up with the sort of callous savagery that’s as much a part of the era as ivory-handled walking sticks. One of several deftly intersecting plots involves the efforts of a desperate Poe to involve his boyhood friend—an appealingly glum medical man named Dr. William Chivers—in faking his death. Along the way, we’re treated to everything from grave-robbing and political corruption to the brutal rituals of adolescent street thugs. Even a casual look into the workings of a so-called “progressive” insane asylum carries its own brand of genteel chill.
And yet, despite its unblinking look at the period, Not Quite Dead virtually skips along with a dark glee that’s both risky and deliciously fun. A scene where the beleaguered Dr. Chivers tries to preserve his gentlemanly decorum while attempting to reinsert his gouged-out eye manages to be hilarious against all odds. With diversions as pleasurable as this, who gives a fig whodunit?