Historical crime fiction featuring strong female characters in roles their real-world counterparts might not have had the opportunity to participate in have become quite popular in recent years. If this first instalment of a new series in this sub genre is anything to go by then Western Australian author Felicity Young’s name will soon be being mentioned in the same conversations and lists as genre luminaries like Ariana Franklin and Elizabeth Peters. At least this will be the case in my little corner of the universe.
The book is set in the early 1900’s in England and introduces Dody McCleland, a young woman of means who has trained to become a doctor but because very few positions in the medical field are open to women she has had to make autopsy surgery her speciality. Even so she is struggling to secure a full time job in the field and volunteers her services doing ward rounds at a local hospital to pass time and maintain her skills. She does however receive some requests for her specialist services from the authorities but on one such occasion she is forced to refuse to perform the autopsy because the victim is a friend of her sister Florence. The woman died during a march by suffragettes and there is speculation that she was beaten by the police but when Dody withdraws from the autopsy a less qualified (and more alcoholic) doctor is bought in to prepare a report which obfuscates any possible role the police might have had in the woman’s death. Neither Dody nor her sister are impressed with this outcome and they embark on investigations of their own. Inspector Matthew Pike of the police is willing to weed out corruption if it exists within the ranks but he is stymied by a strained relationship with his superiors and so must make some unlikely alliances. He is not exactly a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement either so this provides for some extra tension.
I loved meeting Dody McCleland. Although she is a strong woman fighting to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession she isn’t as ardent or extreme in her behaviour as might be expected for this kind of book. While supporting the goals of the suffrage movement she leaves the militant activity of the WSPU* to her younger sister. She is able to see things from the point of view of the police as well as the activists and has a range of interests including advancing her career and learning all she can about the medical field. Although it’s only the first book in which she appears Dody felt more well-rounded to me than heroines of some similar stories who are often an ‘all or nothing’ kind of character with a very singular focus. Her sister provides a nice contrast to Dody but though more militant there are nuances to Florence’s character too and she does not always behave as one might expect of the impetuous younger sister.
Matthew Pike is an equally intriguing and well-rounded character who I will enjoy getting to know in what I hope are many future instalments of this series. His sense of ethics has gotten him into strife more than once and is partially responsible for his almost impecunious state (though Young teases out the fact that then as now this also has a lot to do with the relatively paltry sum paid to the police given all that society expects of them). Although he is more concerned with propriety than the McCleland sisters he proves to be willing to bend the rules if situations demand it and he manages to keep his judgemental propensities in check most of the time.
The setting for this novel is fascinating, not least because the historically accurate information included was incorporated in a very natural way. This did not diminish the impact of some aspects of the backdrop though, including the treatment of the women who went to prison due to their activities in the suffrage movement. The hunger strikes that many women prisoners embarked on with the aim of achieving equality of treatment for the suffragette prisoners regardless of their social class is a known fact but its depiction in this narrative, including the force-feeding of the hunger striking prisoners, really brings home the barbarism of the treatment and the bravery of the women who endured it. Other events from the period, including the hanging of Hawley Crippen which Dody witnesses as part of her official duties, lend a really authentic feel to the book.
Finally there is the mystery itself which, although considered last here is by no means an insignificant part of this novel. Figuring out who killed Lady Catherine Cartwright requires the combined efforts of all the main characters and, of course, doesn’t happen before several wrong turns are taken by all and sundry. While I didn’t see the resolution coming until just before the big reveal it did fit in with the events that preceded it and so provided a very satisfactory completion to the story.
I was quite beguiled by the mixture of compelling fictional characters, well-researched sense of time and place and inclusion of real figures from history in minor roles that were blended seamlessly in A DISSECTION OF MURDER. If you are even a little bit interested in historical crime fiction I highly recommend this novel.
*Women’s Social and Political Union
Note: this book is being published in the US (with UK distribution) in June 2012 but under the name THE ANATOMY OF DEATH
I am counting this as the sixth book towards completing the Australian Women Writers Challenge for this year
My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website: http://www.felicityyoung.com/historical-mysteries.htm
Publisher: Harper Collins 
Length: 279 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
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