In The Spotlight: Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A well-written historical crime novel evokes the atmosphere of an era as much as it does anything else. At the same time though, it doesn’t lose sight of the main plot thread – the crime and its investigation. That’s a difficult balance to achieve. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death (AKA A Dissection of Murder), the first in her Dr. Dody McCleland series.

It’s 1910, and Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland is returning to London from Edinburgh, where she’s recently finished qualifying in forensic pathology. She’s hoping to assist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury in the Home Office, but for the moment, she’s planning to work at a local women’s hospital. When she arrives in London, she learns that a women’s suffrage march at Whitechapel turned very ugly, with several of the protestors beaten and some arrested.  There were deaths as well. What’s worse, Dody’s younger sister Florence is very actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement and was at that fateful protest.

No sooner does Dody discover all of this than she receives a note asking her to perform autopsies on the women who were killed at the protest. Two of the deaths have straightforward explanations, but the third death, of Lady Catherine Cartwright, can’t be dismissed so easily. Lady Catherine has died of blunt force trauma that may or may not be due to an accidental fall. This is especially shocking to Dody, since Lady Catherine was friends with her and Florence for some time.

DCI Matthew Pike begins an investigation and soon finds to his dismay that the Whitechapel police were told to ‘put the women in their place,’ by force if necessary. It’s very possible that one of them may have taken that instruction all too seriously. Pike’s no fan of militant feminism, but all the same, he won’t tolerate police who don’t behave professionally. So he begins the work of finding out which police officers were on duty during the protest, and what each was doing.

In the meantime, there are other possibilities for Lady Catherine’s murder. The suffragette movement is not a united front. Several factions are contesting for leadership of the movement, and Lady Catherine could be a victim of this power struggle. And then there’s the group of Irish patriots who’ve found their way into London. They’d be more than happy to deal a blow to the British police and it’s quite possible that one of them killed Lady Catherine to further their own goals.

Pike sees in Dody an inquisitive mind that won’t be satisfied without answers. What’s more, he knows that the suffragettes do not trust him; he is, after all, a police officer. So he’s hoping that Dody will be able to help find out the truth about Lady Catherine’s murder. For her part, Dody is indeed determined to find out who killed her friend. Besides, she wants to put this case to rest in order to keep Florence safe. Each in a different way, Dody and Pike look into the case and in the end, they find out what really happened to Lady Catherine.

This is historical crime fiction, and readers get a sense of what London was like in those last years before World War I. Beyond the physical description of the city, and the depiction of clothes, lifestyle and so on, Young also shares the atmosphere of the city. There’s a sense that London may not be the safe place people would like to think it is. The ‘Jack the Ripper’ Whitechapel murders are still discussed, even though they’re no longer recent news, and the Hawley Crippen case is the sensation of the day. There are also deep social class differences which play their roles in the novel.

Since Dody is a forensic pathologist, we also get a look at what that field was like during those years. In some ways of course it’s changed remarkably. But there are still some basics that readers of modern forensics crime novels will find familiar.

The main topic at issue though is women’s rights and women’s suffrage. Readers go ‘behind the scenes’ as the suffragettes discuss strategy, argue the politics of what they’re doing and plan their next moves. And it’s clear that there isn’t one unified opinion on what the roles of women should be. Florence and some of her friends represent the more militant feminists who do not trust any man and who are willing to go quite far to get their rights. Others, and Dody is one of these, do believe that women should have the vote. But they don’t condone violence and they prefer a more gradual social change.

As the story goes on, we see some of what the suffragettes faced. For instance, at the Whitechapel march, the protestors are treated violently and even those who refrain from violence have nothing but contempt for them. Some suffragettes are imprisoned in terrible conditions and force-fed, and Young depicts the horror of this without making light of it. I can say without spoiling the story, too, that there are good reasons for which the suffragettes don’t trust the police. That said though, readers who dislike a lot of violence in their crime fiction will be pleased to know that for the most part, the violence here is not depicted in gory detail.

Besides the context and the political and social issues, another important element in this story is the character of Dody McCleland. She is intelligent and observant, as conscientious doctors are. She’s a professional with no patience for people who won’t take her seriously because of her sex. She’s not at all shrinking or diminutive, and she’s in no great hurry to ‘settle down,’ get married and have a family. She enjoys smoking a pipe, and she can hold her own in just about any conversation. At the same time, she’s not a militant. She doesn’t believe in violence to achieve goals, and she doesn’t hate men. She dresses and acts ‘like a lady,’ and doesn’t see why she can’t be ‘feminine’ (I know that means different things to different people) and a professional at the same time.

DCI Pike’s character is also an important element in the novel. He’s got his own ‘baggage,’ having seen and experienced some appalling things during the Boer war. He’s a widower whose wife died in a bomb blast committed by Irish terrorists. And yet, even he admits his marriage wasn’t a happy one, and while he feels the loss, he doesn’t wallow in it by any means. He’s the loving father of Violet, a teenager who’s rapidly being drawn into the suffragette movement. And that causes challenges of its own.

And no, in case you may be wondering, he and Dody do not instantly develop a romance. There really isn’t that sort of angle in this novel. They do learn to trust and like each other though, and they help one another in this mystery. I won’t spoil the story arc by saying what happens in future novels.

The Anatomy of Death (also published as A Dissection of Murder) is the story of a ‘disguised’ murder and its investigation. It’s also a look at life in late Edwardian-Era London, and the deep divides that challenged society at the time. It features a pathologist who’s making her way in what is almost completely a man’s world, and a police inspector who’s trying to make sense of a world that’s quickly changing. But what’s your view? Have you read The Anatomy of Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 11 August/Tuesday 12 August – Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Hagashino

Monday 18 August/Tuesday 19 August – The Bomber – Liza Marklund

Monday 25 August/Tuesday 26 August – Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane


Filed under Felicity Young, The Anatomy of Death

37 responses to “In The Spotlight: Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death

  1. kathy d.

    I liked this book very much and enjoyed our heroine fighting against sexism in the medical profession, while her sisters fought for voting and other rights. Thoss suffragists were very militant. Not all of them violated the law.
    Mostly, the violations were minor, yet women were jailed and forcefed.
    In the States, there were several types of suffragists, around Elizabeth
    Cady Stanton and Lucy Stoner’s time. Frederick Douglas supported them, and, in fact, died after he’d spoken at a women’s rights meeting.
    A movie here called “Iron Jawed Angels” shows the strengths and weakness *ibe nahir ibe b eubg racusn( of the movement, which also used U.D. actions and stood outside the White gates in winter, suffering not only the cold and ice nd snow, but tormenters, thrown oranges and rotten food. They held out, went to jail, were forcefed and finally let go. This was
    Alice Paul and Lucy Stoner. This is whon in the good movie, Iron-Jawed
    Angels.” They were tough and determined,– abd tget wib/1 Ub 1829/1.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you enjoyed this novel. I think it really does show what it was like to be a suffragette during those years. It had to have been frightening and very difficult. Thanks too for mentioning Iron Jawed Angels. There are now some find films, docus and books out about the suffragette era and it’s good to see. We need to remember that part of our history.

  2. Oh Margot you’ve picked one that is sitting on my Wishlist and reading your spotlight it needs to graduate to my reading pile soon. Thank you.

    • Cleo – I hope you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a good mix, in my opinion, of a solid mystery story as well as a good look at late Edwardian-Era London. And the Dody McCleland character is well drawn in my opinion.

  3. I like the sound of this one – it must go on the list. Thanks for spotlighting it Margot.

  4. I believe Felicity is a Perth based writer and her son is in the film making business.

  5. kathy d.

    I apologize for my typos. I was up all night writing and tweaking something and then checked on this page. I was trying to say that the U.S. suffragists prior to and during WWII used peaceful civil disobedience tactics, but also stood out in front of the White House gates in horrific winters, subjected to torments and thrown tomatoes and rubbish.
    They were led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who were well portrayed in “Iron Jawed Angels,” which shows them and others marching, standing outside the White House, being harassed and then jailed. While in prison, the large grouping of women went on a hunger strike and were force-fed. They didn’t give in.
    The state/prison authorities tried to find Alice Paul, played well by Hilary Swank, insane so they could incarcerate her for life. But despite the lack of sleep, starvation and isolation in solitary confinement, she did not cave in. She stood strong.
    So, in 1920 women got the right to vote here, the result of decades and generations of women’s rights activists organizing, with an all-out push before and during that war.
    Until I saw this movie, I had no idea of what the pro-vote movement endured.

    • Kathy – Don’t worry about typos. You have no idea how many I’ve made over the course of time. Trust me. Thanks for filling in this interesting information.

      • On the topic of the Suffragist Movement, I always find it ironical that in a country like India where women are undervalued so badly, women had the right to vote from the dawn of democracy

        • Natasha – That really is ironic isn’t it? Not being from India, I don’t of course know the situation well enough to comment on it. But I for sure see the irony.

  6. Col

    Not one for me this week, cheers though.

  7. I haven’t read this book, but I am putting it right there on my To Read list.The way you describe it, it is exactly the kind of book I like to read- strong personalities, a good story, and set in interesting times.
    Thank you for the great review.

    • Natasha – Oh, I hope that if you read this you’ll enjoy it. I think this is an underrated historical series. And these are indeed strong characters involved in a solid story.

  8. Great spotlight Margot – I’m really enjoying this whole series – it was such a fascinating and turbulent time, especially in women’s history and I think Felicity does a great job of hiding interesting facts in a ripping yarn.

    • Bernadette – Thanks for the kind words. And I agree with you; this is both a very interesting time and a turbulent one in history. And it really is handled beautifully in terms of the balance between ‘tell me a good story,’ and ‘tell me some interesting information.’

  9. Clarissa Draper

    To combine all these elements are extremely difficult to do. I know I have issues when I try to add to many situations and backgrounds to my story. I find the historical details fascinating however. I would like to read this book.

    • Clarissa – That’s quite true; it’s not easy to integrate all of those elements. I think they’re quite well-done here, and I hope that if you get the chance to read this novel, you’ll enjoy it.

  10. Oh, this looks good, coming right before the Maisie Dobbs era, which I like.

  11. Oh dear! Another one that sounds very interesting – couldn’t you spotlight some really awful books, Margot? My poor TBR… 😉

    • Col

      Haha – one man’s interesting is another man’s awful! Not one for me – so I’m happy. Well done Margot! (Different strokes for different folks!)

      • LOL, Col! That’s the beauty of the genre and of the crime fiction community. There’s so much diversity in what’s out there as well as in our tastes. Can’t please everyone all the time, but at least I don’t upset everyone all the time either… 😉

    • FictionFan – I really do hope you’ll like this one if you get the chance to read it. And I’ll start spotlighting really terrible books if you’ll stop adding to my toppling TBR. 😉

  12. Thanks Margot – it’s really rare for me to read historical mysteries set much before the 19th – not sure why but as a genre the distant past rarely attracts me, but this sounds fascinating and much more in my comfort zone (sic) – thanks.

    • Sergio – It’s interesting isn’t it how we feel attracted to or pulled away from one or another era in history. At least this one takes place in the 20th Century. If you do try it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  13. Historical crime fiction isn’t something I’ve tried yet but it sounds like I really should. Like it adds that extra layer. Thanks Margot. Another great ‘In the Spotlight’.

    • Rebecca – I think that well-written historical crime fiction really does have an extra interesting layer. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope that you’ll enjoy this one if you get the chance to read it.

  14. Great choice for the Spotlight, Margot. I’m also a big fan of Felicity Young’s Dody McCleland series. I like that it’s historical crime fiction without being cosy. I also like the insight Young provides into the lives of women of different classes in the early 20th century. Great characters, well plotted, wonderful period detail and – as Kathy points out – fascinating historical setting – what’s not to like!

    • Angela – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re right; there’s a lot in this series to like. One of the things that I like about the series is that the main characters are well-developed and reflective of the era. And as you say, the stories aren’t cosy novels, but at the same time, they’re not gory, brutal noir stories either. And Young infuses historical detail without burdening the stories with it.

  15. I’m honoured that you’ve decided to put The Anatomy of Death/ Dissection of Murder under the Spotlight – thank you Margot! And thanks also to those who have commented.

    • Felicity – It’s my pleasure and honour to spotlight The Anatomy of Death/Dissection of Murder. It’s a great entry into a fine series, and I wish you much continued success with it.

  16. Pingback: Friday Finds (February 6) | Cleopatra Loves Books

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