Monday, July 8, 2013

The Anatomy of Death by Felicity Young

Title: The Anatomy of Death
Author: Felicity Young

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Victorian / 1910 / Coroner / Suffrage Movement / Home Rule / Murder Mystery / Police Procedural / Sisters / Fabian Society / London)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (5/1/2012)
Source: My public library.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, in a matter of days.
One-sentence summary: Dr. Dody McCleland, England's first autopsy surgeon, returns from Edinburgh to find her sister embroiled in scandal when a prominent suffragette is found dead after a rally.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it.  It's not terrible, just not my favorite.

First line: The protesters marched under the bare winter trees, the smoke of a thousand London chimneys spiralling above their heads.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like interesting, unusual heroines in historical novels.

Why did I get this book?: I'm reviewing the sequel for the Historical Novel Society Review and wanted to be sure I was caught up on the story.

Review: This is a solid start to a promising mystery series that takes CSI-ish police procedural and puts a historical twist to it, with a great heroine, interesting class nuances, and a focus on the big political issues of Victorian Britain.

Set in November 1910, the novel follows Dr. Dorothy 'Dody' McCleland, the UK's first female autopsy surgeon. Newly returned from university in Scotland, Dody finds herself immediately plunged into work, assisting in an autopsy almost the second she gets off the train. To her dismay, the victim is a prominent suffragette, a good friend of her sister Florence, and Dody is shocked to discover the death came after counter-protesters and police turned a suffrage protest into a violent melee.

Dody meets Chief Detective Inspector Matthew Pike, who is investigating the death as well as the behavior of the police during the incident, and Dody finds that, despite his initial disapproval, that she and Pike get along rather well. Although he's suspicious of her and her sister, in the end, they find unlikely allies in each other -- which is good, as there's more than one mystery that needs unraveling -- and both face criticism and critique in their professional lives.

The mystery -- the actual crime -- wasn't the hook of this novel for me; it was the characters.

Dody is wonderfully complex. From an affluent family who were Fabianists, she's a 'radical' in her own way yet rather perturbed by her sister's association with militant suffragettes. Obviously a modest woman, she struggles with her attraction to her flirtatious, married mentor, Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, aware of how improper her feelings are yet unable to completely quash her interest in him. And yet, Dody is quite conservative in some ways that make sense given the era, her 'station', and her family's background. Her sister Florence seems at times to play the society activist, using her beauty and money and make a mess of things, yet a survivor of forced feeding, Florence struggles with PTSD and tries to moderate the infighting among her circle. Pike, older, a veteran of war, is fond of new technology (his wise use of the telegraph is responsible for the capture of a criminal, we learn) and yet he has his own issues working with women and dealing with the suffrage movement.

The ambiance of Victorian London is beautiful (disgustingly!) evoked by Young, which is why I love me some historical novels (all that delicious grime without having to actually suffer through it!). There's a waft of romance for Dody, which might annoy people who want the main characters to be sexless, but I actually love the burgeoning romance. (I'm a sucker for a good romance!)

I was delighted to learn Young modeled Dody on her grandmother and the historical woman who became the first autopsy surgeon in the UK, so Dody doesn't feel modern or anachronistic.

My feelings toward this book have grown more favorable as time goes on; about halfway through I stopped reading it because I was reading David Morrell's Murder as a Fine Art and loving that way more. But after I finished it, I returned to this one and finished the remaining half in a single night, unable to stop.

I am super disappointed the next book doesn't continue with the suffrage theme - there's so much fascinating in-fighting and crazy drama to plumb -- but as I loved the second book more than the first one, I can't complain. I am, needless to say, on pins and needles for the third book.

A breezy read, and low on the gross despite the fact our heroine handles dead bodies, this is a good book for rainy days and moody weekends. Definitely one for the autumn. A nice series for those who like light historicals -- not fluffy, per se, but not thick with research -- and those who enjoy intriguing heroines.


  1. I like the sounds of this one. Thanks for the review Audra.

    1. I'm grateful I was introduced to this series -- I hadn't heard of it until I got the ARC for the 2nd book!

  2. Replies
    1. Quite fun, and I loved the second one more than the first.

  3. Interesting and unusual heroine in an historical novel. What's not to like! Looks good to me.

    1. I love a good, unusual heroine! The series keeps getting better and better, too!

  4. I like your review, and the book sounds pretty good. But I'd have a hard time taking a book with that cover seriously. It screams "amateur" and "I do not have a grasp on that thing called perspective."

    1. The cover is so...the second one is less egregious, and I do appreciate the whole figure appears rather than a half head, but I also find her WAY too young looking for my mental image of the heroine. This cover just can't live up to my expectations.

  5. Isn't it funny how important the cover is to some of us? I've gotten a couple of ARCs lately that have no cover at all!! What?? Just the typed manuscript like cover; I've been so disappointed :( I really appreciate a good cover. I was worried about the whole contemporary perspective until you mentioned that the main character is modeled after a real person. You talked me into it despite the cover :p

    1. I agree -- I'm a huge sucker for a good cover!

      The figure that inspired the story was licensed ten years after this story's setting and while that change is significant, it didn't ruin things for me.

  6. This sounds fabulous! I'm pleased to see my library has it--and the next in the series is on order. Thanks for introducing me to it!

  7. Thanks for the lovely review, Audra. And just for the record ... I HATE the cover!!!

    Felicity Young

    1. Ms. Young -- thank you for stopping by -- I reviewed your second book for the Historical Novel Society and will have the long review here next month -- can't wait for your next book! (And I don't feel guilty for not being wild about the cover now!)