Just as the world began to recover from the horrors of the first World War one of history’s deadliest natural disasters started to take its toll. The Spanish flu pandemic that started in 1918 and lasted until the end of 1920 in some parts of the globe eventually killed between 50 and 100 million people. Although a fictional tale, Death and the Spanish Lady has this very real historical context at its heart. It opens in Melbourne, Australia in 1919 and Eleanor Jones has returned to nursing, against the wishes of her family, because she feels duty bound to help in such desperate times. She is working at the city’s grand Exhibition Building which has been re-purposed as a makeshift hospital because more beds for the sick and dying are desperately needed. We’re slowly introduced to Eleanor’s family and friends, some of the other nurses and some patients as Morwood draws a very authentic picture of what it must have been like to live during this period. With public venues like theatres shut for the duration. everyone urged to wear masks at all times and continuously wash hands there is a palpable level of fear at the thought of coming into contact with any other human. Having already been through the hardships of the war, with many having lost loved ones to the conflict, it was a grim time indeed. You could be forgiven for suspecting that a lone murder of a hospital patient might go unnoticed amidst such devastation but it is discovered and just as many people want the truth uncovered as want their secrets kept.
This particular historical event is one that has always fascinated and I was quite excited when I heard about a new Australian book with this as its backdrop. Happily I was not disappointed as the setting proved realistically drawn and a great background for the drama. I couldn’t help but compare the setting to that depicted in Chris Womersley’s Bereft which is set during the same period but in an isolated rural area. In both books the fear of the disease is very well depicted but you do get the sense this would have been one time when living in a city might have been beneficial as the increased risk of contamination might have been balanced out by the easier access to medical help and the myriad kinds of support that disaster brings out in local communities. If I’d had to choose between living through the pandemic in Womersley’s Flint or Morwood’s Melbourne I’d certainly have opted for the latter.
Eleanor Jones is an interesting young woman and one I enjoyed meeting. She is from a fairly wealthy family so had no need to enter into any career, let alone one that put her in such danger as being a wartime nurse would have done. Like virtually all of the characters in the novel she has suffered her share of losses from the war but she soldiers on believably. Her foray into amateur detection is a little bit far-fetched but I don’t think I’ve ever met an amateur detective who wasn’t at least slightly implausible and once she begins her work the problems she encounters are very credibly drawn. There are loads of other characters to meet, many of them just as strong and interesting including Eleanor’s mother who takes her mind off her own troubles with charitable works and some of Eleanor’s fellow nurses, all of whom have secrets they want kept.
The story is a little bit slow in a couple of parts and I find it a stretch to imagine the police doing absolutely nothing to find the suspect they were seeking for the murder but that’s a well accepted trope for amateur sleuth books. These are minor quibbles in an otherwise above average tale which has a very absorbing atmosphere and lots of hints about where future instalments might go. I for one will be waiting impatiently for the second book. Strongly recommended, especially for fans of historical fiction.
It’s been about 10 years since Carolyn Morwood’s two earlier Davitt Award winning crime fiction novels featuring a present-day amateur sleuth were published (An Uncertain Death and Simple Death) and I’m pleased to see her back on the bookshelves, especially as rumour has it this is the first book of a trilogy.
It’s also great to see another small, indie publisher putting out new Aussie crime fiction and they’re even accepting submissions. Way to go Pulp Fiction Press.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website: http://www.carolynmorwood.com/
Publisher: Pulp Fiction Press 
Length: 328 pages
Source: I bought it