DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY is the first book from Carolyn Morwood for quite a while, and that, if for no other reason was enough to create some interest in these parts. Set in the period immediately following World War 1, in Melbourne, during the Spanish 'Flu epidemic of 1919, the book introduces Sister Eleanor Jones. Returned from nursing soldiers overseas, she has volunteered to work in the temporary hospital that is set up within the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings to treat the huge number of patients who succumb to the epidemic.
Given the number of people dying from the 'flu it seems somewhat incongruous that the death of one man, a soldier who has a less than impressive background before or during the war, should cause a stir, but murder is murder, and Jones, working late in the evening in the convalescent ward, has seen something out of place on the night that Reddy died - as it turns out - from arsenic poisoning. The subsequent disappearance of another recovering soldier, Jimmy Cotton seems to be an admission of guilt to the authorities, but Jones is not convinced. Asked to look into the entire matter by the Matron of the hospital, she commences her own investigation.
DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY does a really convincing job at drawing a picture of Melbourne in that time, during that epidemic. The atmosphere of a city in lock-down and the hospital hastily put together within the confines of the Exhibition Building was particularly well drawn. There is an excellent feeling for how life was lived in Melbourne in that time - the unusualness of private cars; the farming family with a farm in Dimboola and a Collins Street residence; the affect of the Great War on so many families - now left mostly female, and frequently utterly bereft at the death or injury of so many men.
Unfortunately there are a few points at which the action drags, and you can't help feeling that the assistance of an editor would have helped Morwood create a tighter story. Certainly the denouement was too padded, which was a pity as it was not so much of a "who did it" by that point, but the "why did it" deserved clearer and more direct focus. Aside from the padding, Sister Eleanor Jones is a really interesting character, a female protagonist with a troubled background, a returned nurse from a war fighting her own demons as a result. It's rather pleasing to know that DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY is the first of a trilogy, as more books will give us all a chance to get to know her, and the Victoria that she lives in better.