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