“The Alchemist of Lost Souls” begins straightforwardly enough. Timothy Browne, “a simple boy of nine,” climbs on a box to spy into the laboratory where Albern Goddard, a discredited alchemist, is admiring a stoppered vial of small stones he’s conjured. The stones give off a near-blinding white light. The setting is Tudor England under Henry VIII.

Cover courtesy of Kensington Books

When the stopper is removed, the stones burst into an intense, brilliant flame. Eventually, they dim and go out, generating a cloud of dark smoke that obscures most of the room. But what magic possibilities lie within?

The fourth installation in Maine writer Mary Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard Mystery series, “The Alchemist of Lost Souls” is thick with alchemists of various stripes and dis-reputations, as well as other characters who would steal the fruits of their magic, given half a chance.

Timothy is the son of Dikson Browne, a cheat and a down-on-his-luck alchemist himself, and Leadith Browne, who has grown weary of privation as her husband’s fortunes decline. Leadith steals the stones from Goddard and goes straightaway to the Dim Dragon Inn, a rough tavern near the Thames, hoping to sell them to the highest bidder. Soon, she is dead in an alley and the stones are missing.

As word spreads that the stones are missing, interest in them grows keen, even though murder begins to trail those who glimpse their dazzling light. Many characters imagine ways to harness the power of the stones to their own needs. Protagonist Bianca Goddard, the daughter of Albern, wants the stones because they belong to her family, and therefore, she reasons, to her. In Bianca’s mind, all other alchemists are suspects — including her own narcissistic father and Dikson Browne.

Bianca is summoned by Constable Patch to aid him in the investigation. They’ve worked together before, and he was impressed with her cleverness, how she is able to collect and sort bits of information to help work out the mysteries before them. She has learned from childhood to survive on her wits. But Bianca’s involvement puts her life in jeopardy.

Someone whom the other characters never glimpse in the early goings-on is Rat Man, a shadowy spirit who has lived under a bridge by the Thames for 200 years, sent there amid the devastation of the Black Plague. He, too, had been an alchemist, but failed to conjure a cure for the disease, which killed his wife and daughter. Restricted to the dark water’s edge, Rat Man awaits a means to finally be free from his memories of screams and death. Perhaps the stones hold an opportunity for him, too.

Lawrence’s story is thickly plotted with no shortage of complex characters. Most have pertinent backstories and motives for wanting the stones. But in the early chapters, I found it challenging to keep them straight. It’s too bad Lawrence didn’t spend more time upfront enlivening the prime characters in order to fix them in readers’ minds. Lawrence also spends scant time describing the London of 1544, but in this case, with brevity — almost as if conjuring it — she succeeds in creating a compelling setting.

One of the delights of “The Alchemist of Lost Souls” is Lawrence’s prose. Confident and evocative, in places it ascends easily toward the literary, lifting and carrying the reader for a stretch of narrative. Lawrence has good instincts for when her illuminating prose fits naturally into the flow; she is skillful in knowing just the right amount to aid the storytelling. It can be as little as a single line. Here Lawrence describes an aspect of Rat Man’s watery world: “Its gentle lapping against pilings and stairs, the squeak of a rope stretched by a mooring, a swan shaking its head and spreading its wings, then settling again.”

The Tudor world that Bianca inhabits in “The Alchemist of Lost Souls” is mean and brutish, but also has moments of bravery and tenderness. There is much tendency to evil, but also redemption and hope.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound” and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com.


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