Evie O’Neill gets into a spot of trouble in her hometown of Zenith, Ohio, and her parents send her to live with her Uncle Will in New York as punishment. Clearly, her parents don’t know her all that well. It’s the Roaring Twenties and Evie is delighted to find herself in the big city, even if her Uncle does work at the boring old Museum of Creepy Crawlies (aka the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult). And life gets even more interesting when a killer begins his work…
I picked this up one very exhausted weekend to while away the time between naps and instead ended up happily engrossed in Bray’s tale of a supernatural New York. For the level of detail alone she should receive a big gold star, but that she peoples it with a numerous and varied cast of characters and binds it all together with an intriguing plot is the icing on the cake, the sprinkles on the trifle, or, to use Evie’s own lingo, the cat’s pyjamas.
That Evie isn’t the most likeable of heroines doesn’t matter overly much when there’s so much else to keep the reader’s interest. She’s fabulous and annoying in about equal measure: one minute delivering some excellent lines and proving herself to be brave, quick-thinking and actually quite caring, the next minute putting her foot in it with selfish attention-seeking and stupid behaviour that made me want to box her ears. And yet without her interference, would the story ever have gotten off the ground? Probably not. While I was far more invested in Theta and Henry, Memphis and Isaiah, Mabel, and even Jericho, it takes Evie’s poking and prodding to get the story going and to keep it running.
And it’s a great story, because I love me a supernatural serial killer. Especially one working to a deadline. About Naughty John, I’ll say very little (trust me, you don’t want me to spoil it for you), except that he was truly creepy. I’m a bit of a wet lettuce when it comes to the scary stuff, so your mileage may vary, but he scared my socks off with his whistling alone. And that spooky old house? Terrifying!
While making sense of Naughty John’s activities is the main thrust of this first book, there is plenty else going on in the background that I am expecting to hear more about in the following three volumes. The mystery of Project Buffalo is one of the big ones, along with that of the man in the stovepipe hat. Smaller puzzles are the true nature of Miss Addie and Miss Lillian, the story behind James’ ghost, and exactly what Blind Bill is up to. The author uses her large cast to good effect to hint at secrets yet to be uncovered and larger evils to be overcome.
I have three small criticisms. They are mostly down to personal taste, but here they are: My first is that Evie’s Uncle Will never truly came to life for me. I wasn’t ever convinced of his reasons for doing anything and found his deliberate silence in response to many of Evie’s questions, particularly towards the end, annoying. He remained an aloof and flimsy character throughout for me. My second is that the Twenties slang got too much for me. I do love details like historical slang for the most part, but I felt it was used just a bit too often and found myself more irritated than amused. And my third and final criticism is that there was both a moment of insta-love and the beginnings of a love triangle that I just know I’m going to hate. Why? Why does this have to be a thing? I’ve been impressed with how this book doesn’t do some of those YA things that really get my goat, but these two romantic entanglements pissed me off. Fortunately, I guess because this is only the start of the series, not much was made of the situations and I still want to read on. We’ll see how things develop in the later books, I guess.
Mostly though, I enjoyed myself. I am still reading primarily for comfort and escapism and am not looking to be stretched in any way, and this book delivered. I gobbled up all the Twenties details (and there are tons, Bray definitely did her homework for this series), enjoying how the author breathed life into her portrait of an energetic and ever-changing America buzzing with industry, consumer-culture and organised crime, which is, behind the lights and glamour, also haunted by ghosts, visions and prophecies. I loved the slow-burn too. We still don’t know much about the Diviners by the end of this book. We know that some of the powers that Evie, Memphis, Isaiah, Theta, Henry and Sam have demonstrated are only the beginning and that eventually they’re going to have to work together, but I like that they don’t yet all know about each other, or even about themselves fully. There are still backstories to be plumbed and secrets to be shared and I am enjoying the anticipation of things to come.