You know that a fictional character has really gotten under your skin when horrid things that happen to them keep you awake late into the night. So it is with Dr Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland, the autopsy surgeon who has appeared now in three of Felicity Young’s historical mysteries set just after the official end of the Edwardian era in England and whose latest escapades made me worried and wakeful several nights this week.
In THE SCENT OF MURDER Dody is playing chaperone for her younger sister Florence who has followed her new beau, Tristram, to the country home of his uncle, Sir Desmond Fitzgibbon. Tristram, a budding archaeologist, discovers a skeleton on his uncle’s property and asks Dody to determine the age of the bones. It is when she pronounces the bones belong to someone recently deceased and insists on informing the local police of her suspicions of foul play that things become truly dangerous for Dody and some of her housemates.
One of the (many) things I adore about Dody is that she is a very practical feminist. While her sister and the radical suffragette group to which she belongs have been busy waging their version of a political war, Dody has gotten on with forging the life and career she wants, and though the compromises she’s had to make are frustrating they’re undoubtedly realistic and give her character a more credible sensibility than some of her fictional colleagues (e.g. Ariana Franklin’s medieval medical woman Adelia Aguilar). In this novel Dody is subjected to a particularly horrendous incident in addition to the usual patronising behaviour and misogyny she encounters but Young resisted the urge to be heavy-handed with the sensitive subject matter which, for me, makes it all the more believable (hence the lost sleep).
Young’s lightness of touch is also evident in her storytelling. It is entirely possible to wholeheartedly enjoy the book simply as a historical whodunit with the requisite amount of adventure and lush period detail. The book does explore social and political themes, including but not only the general treatment of women at this time in history, but these never take on the feel of a lecture as happens with some novels.
Because the whole series takes place at a time when English suffragettes were at their most active one thing that connects each instalment is the exploration of how the disenfranchised are treated by society. Here that theme takes a different turn when action eventually leads to a local workhouse where the best that the impoverished children forced to live there can hope for is to be treated with shabby indifference but far more likely is a harsher form of abuse. Many of the adults involved the management of the workhouse behave as if it is their right to perform such abuse, a scenario not that dissimilar from what must have been the circumstances for decades in many of the institutions currently the subject of a Royal Commission in my own country. Reading a book with this subject matter at the same time as I’m reading daily news headlines about similar abuses of power which have occurred during my lifetime gave this book an immediacy not often present in historical novels.
There are yet more delights in this novel including another strong appearance by Chief Inspector (and Dody’s love-interest) Matthew Pike, a chance to see some more of Dody and Florence’s unorthodox family and an unusual séance but I’m going to stop droning on and simply urge you to track down a copy of THE SCENT OF MURDER (and its two predecessors). Immediately if not sooner.
Publisher: Harper Collins 
Length: 320 pages
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