The Story: The Diabolical Miss Hyde, by Viola Carr and the first book in the Electric Empire series, introduces Dr. Eliza Jekyll, daughter of the infamous Dr. Henry Jekyll, as a crime scene examiner in a steampunk-infused Victorian London. Eliza is faced with her most disturbing case yet – unmasking a murderer known as the “Chopper” as he or she unabashedly severs the limbs of his or her victims. But while Eliza battles against time to determine the killer’s next victims, she faces another battle, an inner war with herself. Left with her father’s transformative elixir, Eliza can use it to change into the uncouth, carefree Lizzie Hyde, who dares to venture into the darkest, most sinister of the city’s back alleyways. But when suspicions in the case fall to her, Eliza must resist the temptation to use the elixir to track down the Chopper, lest she be branded and burned at the stake as a purveyor of forbidden magic.
My Take: Normally, I shy away from stories that build upon a basic, underlying plot or premise from another well-known or classic novel. The Diabolical Miss Hyde is no exception, and its premise (i.e. that Eliza Jekyll is the daughter of Dr. Jekyll – yes, that Dr. Jekyll from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson) was enough to garner my interest as well as give me pause. Luckily, this novel didn’t turn into a classic novel wannabe and created a fresh, new character based off the basic premise in Stevenson’s classic work.
For starters, the split personality of Eliza, the prim and proper forensics expert, and Lizzie, the loud and brash lass, is brilliantly executed. Rather than have some chapters narrated by Eliza and others by Lizzie (which does happen at times), what chiefly occurs is that both women, two sides of the same soul, narrate the story together. Their chemistry – Eliza’s desire to tame her base nature and Lizzie’s coaxing for Eliza to let down her hair – is believable and seamlessly entwined. I’ve read similar novels involving a protagonist with a split personality and it usually comes across as inorganic or mechanical. But Eliza/Lizzie are presented as one entity yet created with their own distinct personalities.
The steampunk world-building here is also strong. The use of gear-based technology combined with early understandings of electricity and the building blocks of realistic forensic science are so interwoven in the story itself and the various characters’ lives that it seems real (and some of it, at least in terms of the forensics aspects, are). In the same way, the science and technology become components to the physical setting as a part of the characters’ way of life rather than just having page upon page of exposition devoted to them. It’s clear that Carr did her homework and took her time to craft a world that’s workable rather than containing gears and aether lights just to make it steampunk.
Genre-wise, this novel is a mixed bag as, on the surface, it looks like a run-of-the-mill Victorian steampunk story with a dash of urban fantasy. But truth be told, The Diabolical Miss Hyde is, at its core, a murder mystery, and for that it works nicely. For readers who dislike being able to solve a plot’s crime halfway through the story, you will be disappointed. In fact, it was the mystery that kept me hanging on long after I had been tempted to shelve this due to some of its content (but more on that in a moment). Just as this novel is a solid steampunk offering, it also works as a solid mystery-detection story. Granted, fans of urban fantasy will find elements to enjoy here as the characters in this novel aren’t always of the Human persuasion. Werewolves, mad scientists, mad men, and demonic/fey beings also exist though the focus is on Eliza and her inner battles, and things can get messy at times.
Speaking of messy, the content here forces this novel to become an adults only offering as it’s peppered with choice words, detailed descriptions of crime scene carnage, and sexual content that includes two detailed sex scenes. Also thrown into the mix is a lesbian love affair, so, overall, I found this novel toeing the line of trashiness for me. The language, most of which flies from Lizzie’s mouth, does fit her character but it will be off-putting to readers who dislike a great deal of R-rated profanity levels. Likewise, while the nature of the Chopper’s crimes are horrific and Eliza’s job involves up-close-and-personal details of a victim’s death, such scenes might negatively affect squeamish readers (though I, for one, didn’t find these portions that gory). Lastly, the sexual content seems tacked on without effect. Yes, both sexual encounters, as explained in the Content section below, occur when Lizzie comes on the scene, but the more graphic of the two seemed unnecessary and very animalistic. Likewise, the lesbian affair, which is given quite a bit of page time, was also unneeded and seemed utilized only to make some sort of socio-political point.
Overall, The Diabolical Miss Hyde was a fascinating character study with solid world building and a good mystery. But its content at times left much to be desired and, thus, will probably isolate readers who don’t care for strong PG-13 to R-rated reading fare.
Language – There is frequent (but not constant) strong language that involves R-rated words (including the f-word). The bulk of the strongest language is spoken by the lead character when she assumes the personality of Lizzie, who possesses a rather uncouth demeanor.
Violence – Given the nature of Eliza’s occupation, we are treated to detailed (but not terribly graphic) descriptions of crime scenes, from the nature of murder victims’ wounds to related evidence. Elsewhere, Eliza performs a detailed, dictated external examination of a dead body in a morgue. Likewise, there is the usual shooting and stabbing sort of violence one might expect between police and criminal types in this sort of story. But probably the most disturbing aspects involve the manner (and reason) why the Chopper removes victims’ limbs, which (**possible spoiler**)culminates in a Frankenstein-esque experiment(**end spoiler**). Collectively, the violence and violent imagery probably won’t turn too many stomachs but it can be unsettling at times.
Sexual Content – While this book isn’t erotica, it does contain suggestive dialogue and sexual references, two descriptive sex scenes, and one lengthy revelation of a lesbian love affair. Concerning the sex scenes, one is between a pedophile and an adult woman (who sets him up in such as way so as to kill him for his crimes). The other scene involves a human adult woman and a werewolf adult man, and this is the more graphic of the two scenes. (There also may be the question in some reader’s minds of whether or not this qualifies as bestiality as the incident occurs while the man is in full animal form.) Lastly, the lesbian affair is revealed through exposition and while no sexual activity is ever mentioned, it goes on for several pages, so some degree of time and purposeful attention is paid to it.
I was all ready to thoroughly enjoy The Diabolical Miss Hyde because it had a solid cast, world, and mystery; and for about 60% of the way through, I did and really liked where the story was going. But a bestiality-esque sex scene, a lesbian affair, and the incorporation of some rather diabolical, even demonic, elements turned a fun romp into a trashy read for me. Thus, this novel is a good, solid steampunk mystery story with a very compelling character, all of which fully warrant the two stars I awarded it on Goodreads; but I couldn’t in all good conscious award it anything higher as, content-wise, especially in terms of its sexual politics, it just wasn’t for me.