Book Review: The Devil’s Grin by Annelie Wendeberg
The Devil’s Grin
by Annelie Wendeberg
The title of the novel is intriguing already, and the story begins with the account of Dr. Anton Kronberg’s adventures in 1889. Dr. Kronberg, the leading epidemiologist of his time is called to examine a cholera victim in the north of London. On the scene he meets Sherlock Holmes, who was called in to investigate the strange case as well…
The two characters are like two peas in a pod. Both are extremely intelligent, unwilling to share too much of their knowledge with others before being certain to know the whole truth, and they are able to read each other. A strange and intriguing friendship forms between the two detectives – one solving crime, the other solving medical mysteries. While Dr. Kronberg initially does not think too highly of Holmes, the detective immediately sees through the young doctor’s best kept secret. Anton Kronberg is actually Anna Kronberg, a woman from Leipzig, Germany, who disguises herself as a man in order to be able to practice medicine in a world in which women are not allowed to. She is specialized in cholera and tetanus – the title of the novel referring to the grimace on the face of those who die of the latter. Unable to trust Holmes with her secret, Anna Kronberg cannot help but hope that he will not reveal her true identity. They end up working together, both, because Anna wants to have a close eye on Holmes, and because they both revel in the company of an equally intelligent partner.
The mystery of the cholera case leads both characters to delve into the world of terrifying medical experiments on the poorest citizens of London with the eventual aim of developing biological weapons. Kronberg and Holmes are sucked deeply into the dangerous scheme; too deep even, to get out of it unscathed.
While reading the short novel, we learn a great deal of the medical practices of the time; about the restrictions and possibilities of those studying medicine while we are simultaneously being held captive by the mystery of the plot and the rather dark antagonists of the story. At the same time we gain deeper insight into Anton’s/Anna’s forcibly split personality and the slow process of her losing her identity by being forced to never quite be true and honest to anyone. This internal struggle and Holmes’s immediate realization of her secret almost necessarily leads to Anna’s deeper emotional attachment to the detective. While the story itself is well written (despite some instances of German language interference, which could, however, be chalked up to Anna Kronberg’s German roots), and the mystery is nicely built up towards the climax of the story, the emotional involvement of the doctor and Holmes sadly disrupt the storyline as well as the character development.
Holmes, whom we get to know as a man who does not involve himself emotionally with women always shows a little too much concern for Anna and eventually does not object to her physical advances, despite telling her in no uncertain terms that he is not interested. Holmes is therefore a very different man than the detective we know from Doyle’s work. At the same time Watson is only a weak secondary character who is taken seriously by neither Kronberg nor Holmes. In the story, Kronberg becomes a substitute Watson, but sadly her internal conflict – which turns almost into a dissociative identity disorder, and her somewhat naïve emotional attachment to Holmes – gives the story a somewhat bitter aftertaste. In the third part of the novel, the established first personal narrative of Dr. Kronberg switches back and forth between the first person and third person perspective which describes Anton. One the one hand this break with the narrative style leads to a better understanding of the internal conflict of the protagonist, which is further deepened by disturbing night mare sequences which are left uncommented but reference horrific events in Anna’s past. On the other hand it disrupts the preceding fluent style of the book and left me a bit at a loss about what to make of it. Instead of getting to know the character, we end up understanding her less and less; her decisions seem more and more based on irrational motivations and her emotions constantly get in the way; weakinging a character who started off extremely strong and well formed.
While the solution to the mystery and the case itself are well constructed, the emotional parting of Holmes and Kronberg leaves much to be desired; but that is a matter of personal taste and each reader will probably react differently to it.
Overall it was a very enjoyable read, with the first half of the book being much stronger in character development and plausibility than the second half. I loved reading about the medical development of the time, a topic which is undoubtedly owing to the author’s expertise in the field. Another lovely bonus, for me personally, was Anton’s origin in the Leipzig region. Geography is used skillfully to give depth to the story and place it into familiar surroundings. I recommend this book as a somewhat alternative pastiche to the usual narratives of cases as conveyed by John Watson. Personally, I found the character development of Dr. Kronberg somewhat problematic and Holmes fairly out of character, but I enjoyed reading the book and feel like I’ve gained a lot of insight into the medical practices of the late nineteenth century.
Annelie Wendeberg is currently working on a second Kronberg mystery and a third book is already planned.
Maria teaches English Literature at Leipzig University, Germany, published a German introduction to Sherlock Holmes and is a fan of all things Holmes – but especially of the Canon stories and Sherlock BBC. Contact her at @stuffasdreams & firstname.lastname@example.org