Suffragettes at the turn of the century were not in an enviable position. Not only were they attempting to get the vote, but also they were trying to change the attitudes of society. The Anatomy of Death tackles the subject of suffrage and women’s rights as well as examining early forensic science.
At a women’s rights rally, Lady Catherine Cartwright is killed, along with two other women. Dr. Dody McCleland, a newly trained autopsy surgeon, is brought in to help examine the women and to help determine their causes of death. Two can be ruled natural or accidental, but Lady Catherine’s cannot. Dody fears a police cover-up and is assisted in the investigation by Detective Chief Inspector Matthew Pike.
Dody’s sister, Florence, a fellow suffragette and friend of Lady Catherine, is quite militant in her ties to women’s rights and there are frequent clashes between her and her sister. Although they both support equal rights, the natural strain of the sibling relationship causes both of them tension throughout the book. Florence is more militant and impetuous, while Dody functions more as a mother figure. Florence makes some rather foolish decisions in her zeal. She was one of the weaker characters, and I wanted to shake her throughout much of the book.
There is a sense of a conspiracy around the events at the rally. Were the police responsible for Lady Catherine’s murder? Did the conflict with the Irish lead to her death? Did her heir kill her? Detective Pike and Dr. McCleland use the knowledge they had available at the time to solve the mystery.
I enjoyed reading about the early struggles that women had to endure in order to get the right to vote. It seems appalling that women would be imprisoned and force-fed just to obtain a privilege that we take for granted now. Period details and historical context were quite well done and added to my enjoyment of the story.
Chief Inspector Pike was my favorite character. His integrity, willingness to work with a female doctor, and his slightly romantic air added to my enjoyment of the novel. Dody was a little stiff to me, but she was based upon a real person, so I am not sure if that was her real personality or a choice the author made.
The introduction of the Irish and their potential conspiracy at the rally was one of the weaker parts of the book for me. And once the murderer was fleshed out, I was a bit disappointed at the sensational nature of the reveal. It seemed to come out of the blue. The story also seemed overpopulated to me. Characters were revealed and named, but they did not have enough back-story for me to relate to them or remember them.
I do think that there is potential in more novels with Dr. McCleland and Chief Inspector Pike. There is something appealing about their interaction and I would enjoy reading about the development of their relationship. Overall, The Anatomy of Death worked more for me as a history lesson rather than a novel.
*I received this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina