Whether they root for the Avengers or the Justice League, comics fan loves a good team-up. Iron Man is enjoyable in his own right, but put Tony Stark together with Thor and the Hulk, and you potentially have a superhero saga that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This mash-up technique works well with many other beloved characters from popular culture, especially if they are in the public domain.

In “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” Theodora Goss, author of “The Thorn and the Blossom,” remixes some of the best-known heroes and villains of the Victorian Age into a high-spirited monster story with a feminist twist.

The novel opens just after Mary Jekyll’s mother has passed away, leaving the young woman penniless and forced to terminate the services of her household staff. Searching for solace among her parents’ effects, Mary turns up clues relating to suspected murderer Edward Hyde, her late father’s mysterious, long-missing friend. There is still a 100-pound reward for Hyde’s capture, enough to rescue Mary from impoverishment if she can claim it. Not knowing where else to turn, Mary heads to – where else? – 221B Baker Street.

If there is a single figure whose presence is almost mandatory in this sort of Victorian literary exercise, it is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson appear early in “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” and Goss’ take on them is pleasingly straightforward and traditional, with no intention to reinvent Conan Doyle’s vision of the Great Detective. Watson is suitably brave, loyal and resourceful. Holmes appears as one expects, arrogant and brilliant, able to deduce the minutia of a subject’s personal history from a handful of observations.

Theodora Goss Photo by Matthew Stein

But this Holmes doesn’t resemble Benedict Cumberbatch: “He was tall, with a high forehead, and the sort of nose they call aquiline. He looked, Mary thought, like an inquisitive eagle.”

As it turns out, Holmes and Watson are already embroiled in an investigation of a series of brutal murders that may have connections to the Jekyll family. The mutilated corpses of prostitutes have been discovered in Whitechapel, each missing a different body part, each removed with surgical precision. The killings gradually connect to Mary’s search for the truth about her father, and they appear to involve a secret cabal of power-mad scientists, known as the Societe des Alchimistes.

Mary Jekyll doesn’t immediately find Hyde’s whereabouts, but she does discover that the brutish man left behind a teenaged daughter, Diana, raised by nuns but not the least bit well-mannered. Mary reluctantly takes the feisty, insolent girl into her home.

The murder investigation leads Mary, Diana, Holmes and Watson to three women experimented upon by members of the Societe des Alchimistes. Beatrice Rappaccini’s breath is poisonous and her touch deadly. Catherine Moreau started life as a puma but has been transformed into more human shape. And finally there is Justine Frankenstein, a traumatized “giantess” built to be the mate of the doctor’s original male creation.

At one point Catherine muses, “I wonder which of them would win, in a contest for worst father? Frankenstein, Rappacini, Jekyll, or Moreau?” It would be a close race, indeed. The authors who created or inspired those characters – Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells – gloss over the plights of women in their work, but “The Alchemist’s Daughter” puts the predicaments of its female characters front and center.

Goss is a senior lecturer at Boston University specializing in late 19th-century and early 20th-century British literature. She’s best known as a writer of short stories and is the winner of the 2008 World Fantasy Award for “Singing of Mount Abora.” Her collection “In the Forest of Forgetting” was published in 2006, and “The Alchemist’s Daughter” is her second novel.

This book brims with Goss’s confidence and expertise. The novel features women who are underestimated and constrained by society at large but who succeed despite neglect or outright abuse. The narrative, written by Catherine, includes running commentary from each of the “monstrous” women, giving them the opportunities to tell their stories and state their truths. For example, Mary says, “I’m not a monster, and that book is a pack of lies. If Mrs. Shelley were here, I would slap her for all the trouble she caused.” It’s a metafictional strategy that could easily backfire, but Goss makes it work.

“The Alchemist’s Daughter” will remind some readers of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s series of “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” graphic novels. Goss’s novel isn’t as intricate in its references to other pop cultural trivia, but by featuring a disparate band of strong female characters, she brings something new and invigorating to her project.

The book leaves a lot of plot threads dangling, suggesting that another volume eventually will be available. At least two other possible new antagonists come to mind, given the references to Dracula and Jack the Ripper.

Mary and crew are a fun and formidable band of “monsters,” and their sisterly solidarity makes for a riveting thriller. Like a literary magpie, Goss snaps up some of the shiniest bits of Victorian popular culture, but she makes them her own, seeing the possibilities beyond the efforts of their original creators and constructing an intelligent and engrossing 21st-century adventure.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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