Essie Fox reviews a new historical crime mystery set in 18th-century Paris which ranges from the slums of Paris to the glittering halls of Versailles and takes in true crime, ingenious inventions, Enlightenment philosophy and the journey of three young women who struggle to take power over their own lives: The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola.
The novel opens dramatically in a bitterly cold winter, when birds are freezing in the air and dropping lifeless to the ground. At the same time, several children are disappearing from the streets.
These sinister events really did occur, leading to panic and speculation regarding what the fates of the children could have been – all of which Anna Mazzola has now reimagined and woven seamlessly into her novel’s narrative.
The story is told from three different points of view.
Madeleine is the daughter of a ruthless brothel keeper who, in the span of her short life, has been forced to witness the very worst excesses of degradation and immorality.
But the route to her salvation comes in the offer of employment as a maid in the home of an ingenious clockmaker.
Veronique is the clockmaker’s daughter, only recently come home after a convent education to be cloistered in the rooms above her father’s shop. This is a treasure box in which the most exquisite and bejewelled creations are sold to the public.
Meanwhile, hidden in the workrooms are more secretive inventions, such as the automaton of a girl who can write, even answering the questions she is asked while on display before King Louis XV. Is there some magic at play, when her words also relate to the recent disappearance of the children from the streets?
The third narrative is Jeanne‘s, groomed from early childhood to be the mistress of the king. She lives a life of luxury in the palace of the Louvre, or the glory of Versailles. But the glitter of her world is undermined by the stench that’s always rising from the sewers; a stark reminder of the festering decay of the court’s social and sexual dissipation.
To all intents and purposes Jeanne is another prostitute, trapped inside her a gilded cage, and separated from her child.
Control and servitude, the lack of personal freedoms, the exploitation and mistreatment of young women and children is central to this novel’s plot – as is the sheer determination of those victims to regain their liberties again, while ensuring those they love are also saved from the monsters wielding power and dominance.
The philosophical questions that the novel also poses are a source of fascination, echoing as they do the writings of Descartes with regard to our existence. What makes us different from machines? What gives a mind that vital spark which is the essence of a soul? In short, what makes us ‘tick’?
And, as for the clockwork girl featured in the novel’s title, Mazzola has researched the master craftsmen of the time, bringing her own authentic touch with references to the emerging ‘science’ of Galvanism: when some believed that the dead could be raised to life again by the means of electricity, such as with the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
With a flair for the drama of darkly atmospheric settings, for her masterful rendition of a large cast of characters, and for weaving so deftly the nets of mysteries that keep her readers’ attention glued to every thrumming thread, Anna Mazzola has created yet another tautly-plotted and suspenseful mystery.
Read more about this book.
Anna has looked at our endless fascination with ‘true crime’ stories in Read All About It! She’s also written one of our most popular features, Gothic writers choose their favourite chilling books. has spoken to Historia about her Desert Island Books. And she’s interviewed Kate Mosse for us.
Essie Fox has written three Victorian novels before her latest, The Last Days of Leda Grey, which ranges from the Edwardian era to the 1970s and tells the story of an enigmatic silent film actress whose obsessive love affair leaves her abandoned and alone for more than half a century.
Essie also hosts a blog, The Virtual Victorian. She has lectured at the V&A and the National Gallery.
In The Victorian theatrical world of mystery and illusion Essie and two other authors, Kate Griffin and Rose Black, talk about the magic of 19th-century theatre.