Devoured is a story that will be enjoyed by readers who like literary historical mysteries that are on the cozy side, with a few grisly murders à la Hannibal Lecter thrown into it. These are original, devious killings, far from the usual strangling or simple gunshot: one victim is pinned to the floor and opened up like a specimen under study; another one is eviscerated, stuffed and sewed back together in leather. An interesting aspect of the story is the intriguing parallel plot that has taken place before the actual story but is revealed through letters sent from Borneo. Benjamin Broderig, an entomologist/specimen collector, sends these letters to a Lady Bessingham. The missives become the reason for some of the killings because they narrate the events of a scientific expedition and its discoveries, disputes and deaths. Their content is considered sacrilegious and heretic by many, but groundbreaking and scientifically important by others.
The era is described accurately throughout the book and the locations are depicted in precise details. The reader gets immersed in the London of 1856 with its bad smells, dirty streets, dark alleys and constant bustle; but where the author succeeds even more is in creating a sense of paranoia and chaos between science and religion. Also, Meredith demonstrates some of her writing skills when describing the jungles and wilderness of Borneo: “Ants crawl across the paper as I write. Geckoes hang, pink embryos, winking knowingly at me. For this is a world where spirits dwell in every rock and crevice. They weave in rivers and lie waiting, breathless in the ground”, “Nature isn’t tamed here, as it is in Ashbourne. It bursts out and clamours. It creeps, weaves, and glistens.” It all made me a bit more interested by what happened there during the scientific expedition; I was always looking forward to the next letter where I’d learn more about the cause of what was happening in London.
Lady Bessingham was murdered because of her great interest in the progress of science and more specifically in the new theories of evolution; the scientific view instead of the holy one. She wanted the letters to become public knowledge, to be published, but Benjamin Broderig wanted to wait a while, afraid of the dangerous repercussions. Other people, for different reasons, were ready to go through a lot of trouble –and mischief and murder-- to get their hands on these letters.
The natural first suspect is usually the husband or lover or close friend of the victim. Why Mr. Broderig is not right away the prime suspect left me doubting the capabilities of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Adams, supposedly famous because of the success of previous cases. But as we learn, Mr. Adams has other things on his mind and his investigation of the murders is a bit uninterested and very flawed. So here come Hatton and Roumande to save the day. Professor Adolphus Hatton is a pathologist and Frenchman Armand Roumande is the morgue assistant, an expert of the human body. Together, they work closely to try to perfect the art of finding the causes of death. They work almost in secret, although Scotland Yard is starting to see the usefulness of their science and calls on them more often than not. Still, their work is controversial.
D.E. Meredith shows a lot of restraint in developing the story slowly, from many points of views (maybe a few too many), and the suspense builds up nicely. The characters seem to follow the same leisurely pace, going from one spot to another (sometimes from one crime scene to another) either on foot, by coach or train. The rhythm picks up towards the last quarter of the book, sparked by the reading of the last letter, and the story concludes on a few more surprises and deaths.
The main problem here is that the story is a bit uneven, sometimes focusing on unnecessary details and following too many characters around; a focus on Hatton and Roumande would have been preferable from start to finish, while still keeping the letters throughout the story.
I enjoyed reading Devoured and the few negative aspects won’t deter me from reading the next D.E. Meredith’s novel. After all, this was her debut and I’d rather read a first novel with some flaws, followed by a second one that is better, than reading an almost perfect first book and be disappointed by the next one.
Minotaur Books/St.Martin's Press
You can visit D.E. Meredith at www.demeredith.com
P.S.: The text would have needed a little editing and a lot of proof-reading –or at least a spell-check—because there were many misspellings and a few typos; these are to be expected in an advance readers or proof copy, but I’ve read the story from a published hardcover. You might say that it’s only a minor irritation, and I’d agree if it would happen only once or twice, but I counted at least a dozen. Obviously, I don’t hold it against the author.