A DISSECTION OF MURDER is the first in a series of books from Western Australian author Felicity Young. Set in London at the turn of the twentieth Century, featuring Dr Dody McCleland, the first female autopsy surgeon, the action in this book takes place in the midst of the Suffragette struggle, with the crime being investigated the death of a prominent suffragette during a rally that turned particularly violent.
More historical crime fiction, in other words. Not so long ago I'd have been dodging this particular sub-genre. Particularly when it comes with a hefty mixing of fictional and non-fictional events and characters. It's worth reading Young's author note at the end of the book to get your head around who and what are the fictional aspects of the book, just to keep reality straight in your head, because A DISSECTION OF MURDER really has a most authentic, realistic feel about it. Needless to say, I've been converted recently, mostly because of some excellent local authors.
Readers will have to stick with the early part of book as it does take a while for things to get moving. To be fair, it is the start of a new series, and there's a fair bit of background explanation, the whys and wheres of Dody McCleland becoming the first female autopsy surgeon, and a significant amount of scene setting going on. Once all of that is worked through, the book quickly becomes extremely compelling. Part of this is due to the characters - Dody and her sister Florence seem like very real people, the world that they live in is very vividly drawn. There's a fullish cast of characters surrounding them, and whilst many of them are, by necessity, very much bit players, there's also some starring roles - not the least of which being the Morgue attendant. In what seems like quite a deliberate styling, the two sisters are poles apart - Dody is considered, cautious, almost withdrawn; Florence more vivacious, outgoing, impulsive. Obviously these two character traits are going to dictate the parts that both women play in the unravelling of the plot, but that set-up didn't come across as overly manipulative. Perhaps because the relationship between the two sisters, whilst sometimes volatile, seemed right, supportive and understanding. Undoubtedly accepting who and what they are is helped by their bohemian family background, as clichéd as that may sound, somehow it gives the girls licence to be willing to push the boundaries.
The main police character in the book - Pike - is a man very much of his time. Jilted widower, father of a young daughter, he supports the concept of the women's vote, but not the methods being used to achieve it. He carries an injury from his time as a serving soldier, which constantly weighs on both his mind, and his career prospects, making him vulnerable to the whims of the upper-hierarchy of the Force. He is a nice combination of stickler for the proprieties and bender of rules when justified by the circumstances, his life has not been as privileged as the McCleland sisters, but he is an interesting combination of acceptance, contentment and longing.
The plot of the book is reasonably strong, although there is the occasional point at which the death of the suffragette disappears a little into the difficulties of the struggle in general, the violence of the police and their motivations, and the involvement of Irish Nationalists. There's also just the slightest hint of possible romantic leanings for the two main characters, which will undoubtedly appeal to many readers. Given it's the opening in a series which is obviously setting up a world for Dr Dody McCleland to function in; particularly as many of the difficulties she experiences as a female doctor, let alone autopsy surgeon, are very far removed from our own current day female experience; I was more than a bit surprised about how happy I felt going with the scene setting. It's a sure sign that A DISSECTION OF MURDER is the opening book in a series I'll be looking forward to seeing more of.
Publication Date: 1st March, 2012.