by H. Leighton Dickson
It’s rare for a story to really stop me in my tracks early on but, with Cold Stone and Ivy, Dickson did something that I was beginning to think I’d never see outside a Kurt Vonnegut story, and she did it in a way that was utterly foreign to me. You see, when combined with the blurb on the front of the book and the synopsis on the back, the first chapter has an added layer of suspense and excitement that authors rarely achieve in their work by providing the reader with more information than her characters. And Dickson very effectively teases us by having those characters doddle along with a lack of urgency when we know that everything’s about to irrevocably change.
Cold Stone and Ivy is a murder mystery that takes place in an alternative Victorian England with steampunk technology. It’s common knowledge that Sebastien de Lacey, the Lord of Lasingstoke, is mad, but that doesn’t stop Ivy Savage’s father and fiancé from sending her to lay low on his estate after she receives a heart in the mail from Jack the Ripper. While there, she discovers that Sebastien’s actually haunted by ghosts of the deceased, and the only way he knows to send them away is by killing their murderers. His special set of skills gets him recruited by the queen to find the Ripper and stop him before he kills again.
Most of the effectiveness of mystery writing is related to the plot, the strength of the resolution, and the balance of hinting at the solution without giving too much away, and the entire first part of Cold Stone and Ivy is testimony to Dickson’s skills as such an author. She gives out enough conflicting, but reasonable, details to get readers guessing who the killer is, and paces her story effectively. Dickson also shows some great restraint in her storytelling; as I settled in on my explanation, I found myself going back, re-reading sections, and finding details I previously glossed over that later bolstered my theories.
But then things change quite drastically in Part II. The pacing suffers a bit as we alternate between leisurely explanations of the overarching story and action that didn’t feel as significant, to me, as in the first part. Dickson also attempts to throw in details to throw readers off the scent in the second part, but I didn’t find anything was strong enough to convince me that my initial conclusion was wrong. It’s unfortunate, but I firmly feel as though I would have appreciated the second half more had the big reveal surprised me.
So, we arrive at this awkward spot where it feels really great as a reader to pick up on the hints Dickson peppered throughout and figure it all out before it’s explained, but it seems to hold less weight when you get there, if this happens. Is there any helping that? I couldn’t really say. What I do know, however, is that, despite its faults, Cold Stone and Ivy most definitely contains great writing and Dickson even succeeds with some storytelling techniques that I’ve never seen used as effectively.