The Specimen has interesting Victorian-era themes and characters: an intelligent, independent-minded major character, Gwen, who has a passion for science but is held back by her gender; a murder mystery; Darwinism versus Spiritualism; an anonymous author; the exploitation of people in freakshows; laudanum addiction; syphilis; the inequality of women in marriage; adultery; Victorian fears and hypocrisy about sexuality; the rapaciousness of Victorian collectors. (I suspect one of the marriages in the novel was inspired by that of John Ruskin.) Some, but not all, of these themes could have been expanded upon.
Unfortunately, once the story moves to Brazil and Gwen is stuck in limbo, having lost her independence, the story palls. The pace picks up again once she returns to England and we follow with increasing urgency the course of her trial for murder.
I think one of the problems creating the unevenness of the novel is that some interesting characters are introduced and then disappear, and then towards the end of the novel new characters are introduced. Another is that one of the major characters (I won’t give away the identity) has too few good qualities, and thus becomes too much of a ‘flat’ villain.
The Specimen, however, has the capacity to surprise and keep you guessing. Not all its mysteries are resolved (which may or may not please some readers).
On the basis of some elements of this novel, I am curious to see what Martha Lea writes next. She is an historical novelist to watch, although this specimen is not without its flaws.
© JD Ellevsen