Maine novelist Mary Lawrence draws on her training in science in her second Bianca Goddard mystery, ‘Death of an Alchemist.’

“Death of an Alchemist” is quick, consuming and wholeheartedly driven by its insatiable heroine and Mary Lawrence’s grasp on a simple, engaging story. This is the second book in Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard series, mysteries that take place in 16th century London.

Mary Lawrence

Mary Lawrence

Lawrence, a scientist by training, combines medicine, history and sleuthing to create an engaging, though sometimes two-dimensional, world for Bianca. “Death of an Alchemist” relies on a tried and true combination: A curious, bold and impertinent woman repeatedly stumbles upon intrigue and death. This is well-worn territory because it works.

Bianca, the daughter of an obsessive alchemist, uses her own wit and devotion to craft healing remedies for the sick. In seeking new knowledge for her own work, Bianca is introduced to Ferris Stannum, an old and (if the word can be used with the questionable profession) venerable alchemist. This chance meeting and Stannum’s claim to have discovered the elixir for eternal life propels Bianca into a few days of adventure.

Along the way, the stakes rise as Bianca is threatened and her husband, John, falls ill with what appears to be “the sweat,” a swift and deadly disease.

For the most part, Bianca inhabits a world of men. In addition to the elderly alchemist and her husband, there is Plumbum, Stannum’s student with a penchant for young boys and gambling; Barnabas, a selfless doctor and friend of Stannum who would do anything for his daughter; and Meddybemps, Bianca’s old friend, peddler of talismans and remedies, and the story’s comedic relief.

Of all of the male characters, Meddybemps is perhaps most developed. He has a history with Bianca, dating back to her childhood days as a rascal and petty thief.

Meddybemps is an unabashed womanizer who rounds out his eccentric role with songs and rhymes.

“An evil puck is he / A clever pip is me,” he sings. “Cast him back to hell’s hot steam / And buy a charm from me.”

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One of the more interesting characters is only a shadow, and his story remains unresolved; this is, after all, a series. He is named only as The Rat Man, and we are led to believe that he is a former alchemist who resides somewhere between the living and the dead. “The Rat Man sought a solution to the one law he never mastered,” Lawrence writes. “A law that had punished him for even trying. He could not live and he could not die. He was the abomination of an experiment gone badly wrong.”

This mysterious character plays backdrop to a drama of life and death, so close to the surface during this era of squalid conditions and rampant disease.

The question of humanity’s agency in this drama is central to the story – it provides the tension that drives alchemy, medicine and love alike.

When deciding whether to seek out the elixir for eternal life to save her husband from his illness, Bianca says, “But if his soul is finished with his body, should I concoct an elixir to prevent it from ever leaving? Does it serve his soul to never part from his physical body?”

These are questions that remain unanswered, but it is part of Bianca’s charm to ask them and to lead us through adventure and misadventure in pursuit of answers.

Heidi Sistare is a writer and social worker who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has work published in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine and other publications. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @heidisistare


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