When Tillie Pembroke’s sister is murdered and tabloid reports suggest the culprit is a supernatural serial killer, Tillie sets out to discover the truth, despite the misgivings of her friends and family — and her increasing reliance on narcotics to manage a recent injury. It’s a story that could be set anywhere in America right now, but Lydia Kang instead sets her latest historical mystery, Opium and Absinthe, in New York City, 1899. The result is a compelling, suspenseful story with plenty of parallels to modern-day events.
As in her previous mysteries — The Impossible Girl and A Beautiful Poison, Kang vividly brings history to life. Opium and Absinthe is meticulously researched and filled with the sort of small, telling details that can illustrate both character and place, allowing us to see the many privileges of Tillie’s upperclass life — and how miserably constrained she is by society’s expectations. She’s an intelligent, determined heroine desperate to find answers and manage her pain.
It’s precisely because Tillie is so appealing that her descent into addiction is so unsettling. She doesn’t set out to abuse the opium prescribed to her. But when her doctor and family encourage her to continue taking the narcotics longer than strictly necessary, it’s easy to see the path she’s headed down, even if Tillie herself does not. It’s also impossible not to see a similarity between her situation and the modern-day opioid epidemic, especially given that the author is also a physician.
It’s not a spoiler to assure you that the supernatural plays no part in this cleverly constructed mystery. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is sweeping the city just as the story opens, and so Tillie is predisposed to see monsters everywhere. The suspects, however, are all decidedly human. Tillie’s not wrong, of course — there ARE monsters everywhere in this story. But they are very much of this world.
Opium and Absinthe is an atmospheric, richly detailed mystery, with an unforgettable heroine. It’s a great choice for fans of historical mysteries with a decidedly un-cozy edge, such as The Alienist or Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series.