Vivian Shaw’s “Strange Practice” introduces a marvelous new character: Dr. Greta Helsing. Physician to the undead--or differently alive, as Dr. Helsing thinks of her patients--Greta is the most recent iteration of the famous van Helsing family. The family quietly dropped the “van” several generations ago to avoid unnecessary attention from those less inclined to view the undead as good neighbors.
Following in her late father’s footsteps, Greta provides much-needed medical services to the undead of London. In a typical day, she treats banshees with sore throats, mummies with thinning bones and vampires suffering from garlic exposure. While she does have a clinic, it’s not unusual for her to make house calls. As you can imagine, what her patients call “home” varies widely.
The novel opens with Greta being called to the home--a rather nice mansion-- of her good friend, vampire Lord Edmund Ruthven. One of Ruthven’s fellow vampires, Sir Francis Varney, has been attacked and stabbed by several monks as he entered his apartment just before dawn. Ruthven and Varney are returning from Varney’s apartment when Greta arrives.
The wound in Sir Varney’s back is unlike any Greta has seen before. The tip of the dagger that remains in the wound is causing more pain and complications than she would’ve expected from an object that size. According to the victim--it’s not often that one thinks of a vampire as a victim--his attackers reminded Varney of the Medieval warrior monks he had encountered many centuries earlier.
Initially, Greta and Lord Ruthven are unaware that the monks are also killing mortals with alarming frequency. As you can imagine, the living AND undead populations of London are starting to panic.
While “Strange Practice” is an enjoyable read for many reasons, I want to mention two. First is Shaw’s ability to humanize characters who are normally portrayed as a scourge that preys on humans. For example, Lord Ruthven often invites his human friends over for elegant dinners… But no garlic, of course. And no, he doesn’t sleep in a coffin. As Ruthven says, “They’re too narrow to let you roll over, and the mattress plays bloody hell with my back.” And to make his friends more comfortable in his presence, Ruthven asks that they think of him as a large, well-dressed mosquito, with impeccable manners.
Second is Shaw’s ability to describe scenes in an original way. When Greta faints for reasons I won’t give away, the author writes, “The floor gave another dizzying heave and then everything went away for a little while.” In another scene, Greta is in danger. When she sees Lord Ruthven coming to the rescue, she doesn’t just give him a hug. That would be too ordinary. Rather, Shaw shows Greta “wrapping herself around Ruthven like a panicky octopus.”
“Strange Practice” is the first of a proposed series featuring Dr. Greta Helsing. I can’t wait for the next one!
Reviewer David Bross is a retired elementary school teacher from Williamsport.