Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Something evil lay through that door, he told himself.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: I think Doctor Spittle was the first Robin Jarvis villain who I actively hated. With the rats, they were nasty in an entertaining way, and with Roslyn Crozier, at least she had a solid motivation behind her cruelty. In contrast, there is absolutely nothing fun about Spittle. He is petty and narcissistic and abuses Will just because he can. I’d compare him to Isaac Nettle in terms of sheer unpleasantness, but Spittle is arguably worse because he doesn’t even have misguided faith to cling to. He’s out for himself from start to finish, and his actions in this chapter show us just how hateful he really is. In this case, I hazard that first impressions may turn out to be correct.
Spittle might be a villain, but he is also a complex character with plenty of sinister secrets. Clearly, the apothecary business is a front for his true endeavours, which, judging from that mysterious attic door, are most definitely magical in nature. At this point, whether he really is an ‘alchymist’ is as debatable as his dubious London Pharmacopoeia associations (I highly doubt that he is, in fact, affiliated with any official medical institutions, and even if he is speaking the truth, I expect that his qualifications are forged) but there is evidently something going on behind the scenes.
In the finale of The Dark Portal I mentioned Felidae, and I beg your pardon, Readers all, for bringing it up again here. When Will finds the attic door, I could not help but think of the beginning of that book, in which Francis, the feline protagonist, senses something deeply unsettling from the upper storeys of his owner’s new home and determines to investigate. The Alchymist’s Cat does in some ways have a similar claustrophobic atmosphere to Akif Pirinçci’s novel, and both are certainly stories of cats and murder!
Matt’s Thoughts: So this chapter gives us the Alchymist part of the title – we have to wait a wee bit longer for the Cat part.
I haven’t done a lot of research on the habits of apothecaries (or alchemists, for that matter) from the 17th century, but it all feels very real to me. The grubby shop, the strange bunch of herbal medicines that we barely knew how they worked. It just seems like a miserable time to ever become sick. You really would be trusting to your immune system moreso than anything that could be offered by medical science.
Again, a shout-out to the secondary characters – both Lingley and Molly immediately become distinctive and nuanced in just a few paragraphs. How does Mr Jarvis do it?
As for Spittle, what a miserable old man. Did he have a Madame Akkikuyu sort of tale, where he started life as a young man with good intentions, but gave over to a lust for power and dark knowledge? Does he have any soft spot underneath? (Not so far, it appears!)
But the real highlight of the chapter for me was the door. There’s just something in stories about Locked Doors That Must Not Be Opened that never fail to tantalise and this one is no exception.
One other advantage of having the original version is that the back cover, from memory – I lent mine to my sister a few years ago and now only have the silver editions – had a beautiful full-colour illustration of the upstairs attic room. Brilliant stuff.