Judith’s review of The Anatomy of Death by Felicity Young.
At the turn of the twentieth century, London’s political climate is in turmoil, as women fight for the right to vote. Dody McCleland has her own battles to fight. As England’s first female autopsy surgeon, she must prove herself as she also proves that murder treats everyone equally…
After a heated women’s rights rally turns violent, an innocent suffragette is found murdered. When she examines the body, Dody is shocked to realise that the victim was a friend of her sister – fuelling her determination to uncover the cause of the protester’s suspicious death.
For Dody, gathering clues from a body is often easier than handling the living – especially Chief Detective Inspector Matthew Pike. Pike is looking to get to the bottom of this case but has a hard time trusting anyone – including Dody. Determined to earn Pike’s trust and to find the killer, Dody will have to sort through real and imagined secrets. But if she’s not careful, she may end up on her own examination table.
She’s young, she’s smart, she comes from a family with social standing, yet Dody McCleland has a plan for her life that definitely doesn’t fit society’s idea of what a gently bred female should be and do. As England’s first autopsy surgeon, she is fighting an uphill battle to be accepted for her skills, and it is only because there are a dearth of autopsy surgeons available that she is given any opportunity at all to prove her skills. Add in the fact that one of the most focused and determined of the women fighting for the right of women to vote is Dody’s sister, a woman with the kind of commitment that a just cause needs, but one whose sense of strategy about the when and where and how to are often sadly lacking.
There is a romance here, but it is one of those kind that hovers–that lingers in the attraction that is inferred rather than an overt statement of fact, like the whiff of a fine perfume that lingers in a room after the person wearing it is gone. Chief Inspector Pike is a man of integrity who is also caught in the web of “sort of” cost cutting and corner cutting going on in Scotland Yard, a former military man who knows that he is running afoul of his superiors because he insists on investigating excessive use of force against the women crusaders as well as an untimely death to a high ranking society lady whose presence at the demonstrations makes a great many people in power very uncomfortable. Dody recognizes that Pike is a man with a kindred spirit, yet he is one of those who keeps his own counsel, whose emotions are as difficult to perceive as the meaning of some of his comments. There are instances when Pike experiences deep disappointment in those he has trusted, yet he is a man with a clear understanding of the demands life has made on those same people and even in the midst of his disappointment there is forgiveness and accepting reality.
I particularly liked this tale as it is set in a time when women were fighting so hard to be recognized as legitimate in areas other than the ballroom, the maternity ward, and the front parlors. It is a fitting context for the story of a woman like Dr. Dody, a woman whose life is already full of the stress of trying to gain a foothold in the medical field but who is concerned that her younger sister is not using good judgment in the way she is allowing her commitment to women’s justice issues to cross the line into fanaticism from time to time. The author also throws in a couple of Irish rabble rousers, complete with their anger toward the British occupation of Ireland and their historic roots of Sin Fein, and you have a complex tale that grabs the imagination of any reader who has an interest in the roots of women’s fight for the vote and political legitimacy, who have wanted more exposure to the battle of women to be seen as equals professionally, and to witness the beginnings of a connection between Dody and Pike, and you have a scintillating tale of murder, corruption, political intrigue, all wrapped up in the tissue paper of sexual attraction.
This is a fine book, beautifully written and edited, with the historical genre handled with care. Yet the historical context never overcomes the story of Pike and Dody and the myriad characters that surround them. It was a joy to read and one I am so glad I didn’t miss out on.
I give it a rating of 4.25 out of 5
This book is available from Berkley Trade. You can buy it her
e or here