Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Especially in modern crime detection, police, medical examiners and court authorities rely on the expertise of pathologists to find out how someone died. And with modern technology, pathology as a science has become increasingly informative and informed. Let’s take a look at pathology in crime fiction and turn the spotlight on Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent, the first in her Anya Crichton series.
Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist/forensic physician who’s recently opened her own freelance office. One day her friend DS Kate Farrer asks for her help on an odd death. Clare Matthews had been about to take her final vows to become a nun, and by all accounts was positive and optimistic about her decision. Then she disappeared. A few months later, her body’s been found at the bottom of a cliff, the result of an apparent suicide. But several things about the case don’t add up. For one thing, the victim wasn’t dressed in a way she normally dressed. For another, she was six weeks pregnant. Crichton’s getting to work on this case when she gets a new client. Anoub Deab wants her to find out the truth about the death of his sister Fatima. The two are from a very traditional Muslim family, and until a few months ago, Fatima had respected their ways. Then, after an argument with her father, she’d left. Now her body’s been found in a public toilet with a needle in her arm. At first, the police thought it was an overdose death. But for reasons of family honour, Deab wants Crichton to find out exactly what happened to his sister.
Crichton begins to work on that case too, and soon makes a strange discovery: small fibres that look like (but aren’t) asbestos were found in the lungs of both Clare Matthews and Fatima Deab. It’s unusual to get such results from the lungs of young, otherwise healthy people, so Crichton wonders whether the women might have been in the same place at some point. If so, this might present a public safety hazard.
As Crichton looks into this possibility, she learns that there’ve been other victims, too – young, otherwise healthy women – whose lungs contained this unusual fibre. Then, another young woman Briony Lovitt is rescued from what looks like a failed suicide attempt. Her story, what little she is willing to tell of it, is eerily similar to that of the other victims. She left home and then turned up later, about to commit suicide.
Now, Crichton and Farrer, who’s working on these cases from her own angles, begin to believe there’s something more to these deaths than just having been in the same place. If so, there’s a much more dangerous force at work here than they thought. And the closer they get to the truth, the more dangerous that force turns out to be.
In the meantime, Crichton is facing her own personal issues. She’s trying to get a fledgling business off the ground, and she’s trying to make some kind of life for herself after her divorce from her ex-husband Martin, who’s a nurse. He’s got custody of their three-year-old son Ben, and may be moving back into the area. If so, it will mean she sees a lot more of Ben, but it will also mean some re-adjustment. And this case will have profound effects on the way that new life works out.
Because Crichton is a pathologist, there is an element of that discipline and that career in the novel. She does research, gets and gives information on certain professional fora, and occasionally gives teaching lectures. Because she works freelance, she doesn’t have the protection that a lot of pathologists do of association with a particular hospital, laboratory or government employer. So there are very real issues of balancing the search for honest answers with the need to satisfy one’s clientele.
There is also a certain amount of information about pathology, especially forensic pathology, in the novel. Readers who dislike medical details in their crime fiction will notice this. That said though, the main focus of this story is on what the victims had in common; and I can say without giving away spoilers that it’s something other than fibres.
The story is told in third person, from both Crichton’s perspective and Farrer’s. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. But that choice of perspective allows Fox to show how each contributes to solving the case. Readers also see the friendship that has developed between the two sleuths. In one sense, they work together, since they are friends and compare notes. In another, they work quite independently, since they aren’t employed in the same place.
The story is not a light one. There is a great deal of unhappiness in the lives of some of the victims, and Fox does not gloss over how difficult it is for Crichton to be a non-custodial, but very loving, mother. And although Crichton is not a stereotypical drunken, haunted detective, she has had real tragedy in her past, and Fox doesn’t make light of that. As Crichton and Farrer talk to victims’ families, we also see how awful the loss of their loved ones has been to them.
There is, though, a certain amount of wit in the novel. For example, in one scene, Crichton gives a teaching lecture on forensic pathology to a group of students:
‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house. Anya introduced the day’s topic and a croaky voice from the back row interrupted.
‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’
The most predictable question had taken all but thirty seconds to be asked.’
Anyone who has ever taught upper-level or university students will understand this…
Readers who do not like detailed descriptions of graphic violence will be pleased to know that this novel doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on extended scenes of brutality. Violence is mentioned though, and it’s clear that some terrible things have happened in the victims’ lives. The suspense in the novel is built not from ‘blood-letting,’ but from the psychology involved in what’s happened. There’s also an element of suspense as readers learn that not everyone involved in the case is trustworthy.
The story takes place in the Sydney area, although Crichton is originally from Tasmania. And Fox places the reader there, both in terms of geography and in terms of local culture. Readers also get a sense of Australian state and federal facilities and policies for forensic studies and laboratory results.
Malicious Intent features two protagonists from two different fields who take different perspectives on the same set of deaths. It shows the reader how forensics experts and the police do their jobs, and how even something as simple as a fibre can be a clue to something much bigger. But what’s your view? Have you read Malicious Intent? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 29 December/Tuesday 30 December – Mercy – Jussi Adler-Olsen
Monday 5 January/Tuesday 6 January – Confessions – Kanae Minato
Monday 12 January/Tuesday 13 January – Just Another Angel – Mike Ripley