The Illusion of Murder by Carol McCleary

Nellie Bly, who lived from 1864 to 1922 was a pioneering American woman journalist. And now she is a fictional character, appropriated by Carol McCleary, to play the leading role in two novels.

I’m often dubious about this kind of literary borrowing, but I have to say that Carol McClearly does it very, very cleverly. She takes the facts of Nellie’s life and weaves in crime, mystery, and scandal, that had to be suppressed from the reports that Nellie wrote. And she introduces prominent figures of the age who Nellie may well have met.

At the end of the first book of the series, The Alchemy of Murder, Jules Verne challenged Nellie to match the 80 days that it took his fictional hero, Phileas Fogg, to circumnavigate the globe. Nellie vowed to do better, to take a mere 75 days.

The Illusion of Murder is set on this journey, a journey documented by the real Nellie in the book “Around the World in 72 Days.”

But, of course, some facts had been suppressed:

“How do I make a connection between a murder in an Egyptian marketplace, a holy war to drive the British from Egypt, a train car named Amelia, the world’s greatest actress and an American racehorse enthusiast rich as Midas?”

The story opens as Nellie’s journey reaches Egypt.

In a busy marketplace in Port Nellie sees a man stabbed. She rushes forward to try to help, and the dying man passes her a key and whispers the  word ‘Amelia.’

 Nellie is convinced that the man is European, and that he had been travelling on the same ship as her. Her companions deny it, insisting that what she saw was a dispute between natives, something that needn’t trouble them.

Nellie is unconvinced. She knew what she saw, She will not abandon her journey, but she will uncover the truth. But the truth is elusive as Nellie has to cope with fellow travellers who dismiss her as a troublesome,  hysterical, attention-seeker, officials who are not prepared to acknowledge that something irregular may have happened, and quite a number of others who would like to silence her.

Nellie doesn’t know who to trust. She would like to trust Frederick Selous, the man who was the model for both Alan Quartermain and Indiana Jones, but she senses that he is keeping something from her. As is Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress, whose reasons for making the journey are far from clear.

The balancing of a complex mystery and an exciting race around the world is very well done.

Which is not to say that there aren’t problems: the style and the characterisation are a little simple, the wonder of such an extraordinary journey is a little underplayed, and there are times when the plot slips for a while leaving characters rushing around for no particular reason.

In the end though I was swept away an eminently likeable and inspiring heroine, and by the wonderful colour and drama of her story.

The mystery was solved on the final leg of Nellie’s journey. She found answers, quite extraordinary answers, to her questions on a train from Chicago to New York.

It was such a clever conclusion. It was completely unguessable, and yet it brought everything together perfectly.

The story was ludicrous, but it was very, very, readable, and I couldn’t fault the logic.

And so I am wondering what Nellie’s next adventure might be.

6 responses

  1. So did you read the first book in the series? I suppose I could search your site and see. I think I might like this one, but I’ve been disappointed recently in reading other “celebrity-as-sleuth” mysteries.

  2. Hi Jane,
    This is also a new author and series to me, but one which I shall be looking out for. It sounds quite intriguing and I think I am going to like the format for story.

    Thanks for the recommendation

  3. I already like Nellie and want to read how she solves this mystery and what she finds out. I enjoy mystery stories especially when they part of another story and a race around the world is excting and interesting on its own.
    This is the first I’ve read about Carol McCleary and this book. Thank you!

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