In the history of modern science, the decades that bridge the medieval era, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were a wild time. The way that Americans are taught about this time makes the medieval era seem like, as Justin McElroy of Sawbones* once said, “everyone got stupid for a while.” Ancient science was suppressed in favor of Catholicism and alchemy, until the Renaissance kicked off in Italy and the march of Science resumed. Like I said, this is what we’re pretty much taught over here. When we get to college, we might learn about the geniuses of the Islamic Middle Ages or about weirdos like Paracelsus**. This is a huge oversimplification of a lot of history, but it does partly explain the phenomenon at the heart of The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart. In the early years of what we now call science, natural philosophy was all the rage as wealthy European men (mostly men) who were curious about the world around them started to study—and collect—specimens from around the expanding world.
Lady Cecily Kay was, until shortly before the opening of the novel, semi-happily collecting plants near Smyrna. When she inadvertently shows up her husband, Cecily is shipped home to England. But she has plans to make the best of it by taking the opportunity to visit the “cabinets” of Sir Barnaby Mayne. Mayne’s collection contains thousands of objects including, but not limited to, fossils, bones, stones, statues, preserved animals, gems, feathers, shells, weapons, books, and occult objects. Mayne’s London mansion is filled to brim and the man has no plans to ever stop acquiring. Cecily wants to use Mayne’s botanical collection to identify her own specimens but, on the very day that she arrives and less than an hour into a group tour of the collection, Mayne is apparently murdered by his assistant.
Cecily, being the inquiring soul that she is, starts asking questions when she realizes that Mayne’s murder is not as simple as it appears. She also has a friend in Mayne’s house to help her find the answers to those annoying questions, childhood friend Meacan Barlow, who is now working as a scientific illustrator. Together, Cecily and Meacan pursue all of the possible suspects to find out who really did it. It was hard to tell if they were investigating because they wanted to free an innocent man, or if they’re just really, really curious and want their questions answered. One after another, Cecily and Meacan look into the possible motives and alibis of thieves, frauds, maniacs, a group of possible warlocks, lovers, and more.
While all this is happening, Hart treats us to a lively portrait of the world of collecting. Members of this society obsessively hunt, acquire, and study all sorts of objects that catch their interest. Because the boundaries between the occult and the natural world are still forming, it’s not unusual for things we would recognize as ordinary scientific specimens to share shelf space with grimoires, holy relics, or objects with outlandish origin stories. Characters who live on the peripheries of the collectors—like Meacan and one Signore Covo, a fixer for the collectors—tend to watch all their antics with a raised, judgmental eyebrow. The funny thing to me is that we still have collectors, although the things that get collected is a lot broader these days. (I have a nephew who used to be able to give me chapter and verse on all his Pokemon cards before he moved on to something else.) On the other hand, some of those collectors went on to become some of the biggest names in early science in Europe.
There are some places in The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne where the plot threatens to get overstuffed or where Cecily and Meacan’s adventures strain credulity a bit. While there is some clumsiness here, I was very entertained by this book. I really enjoyed Cecily as a woman who, when thwarted, quietly finds another way to get to her objectives. Most of all, I loved the descriptions of Mayne’s collection and the world of collectors. I don’t have the collecting bug myself***, I could easily imagine myself as one of the people who turned up at Mayne’s doorstep for a tour. I recommend this book for fans of historical mysteries.
* One of my favorite podcasts. Highly recommended.
** Who has the best name in the history of ever.
*** As I’ve been told, it’s not hoarding if it’s books.