Crime fiction, a genre I read a lot of, has occasionally the tendency to feel a little ‘samey’. And I don’t just mean the plots. At some point, the consensus has become that books need to be dialogue heavy. Descriptive prose is out. And yet, it is this style of writing outside of crime fiction that I love. Colm Toibin, for example, writes beautiful dialogue sparsely. So I was delighted when I picked up the new latest book by Linda Stratmann to see that it contained paragraphs of description that related to both the setting and the plot.
In West London, a doctor has set up a hospital for the dead in response to the concerns of Victorian society that they might accidentally be buried alive. In the hospital, bodies are kept until putrefaction has set in thereby reassuring relatives that the dead are truly gone. When Doctor Mackenzie dies, his young assistant mysteriously disappears and Frances Doughty, a young detective with a reputation for perseverance, joins the hunt for the missing Henry Palmer.
A Case of Doubtful Death contains a huge amount period detail. The author has written a number of non-fiction books on past murders around the UK and clearly knows the period well. There is also a significant amount of forensic detail provided which I found fascinating in a historical setting. Victorian London, of course, is a gift of a setting for a writer, but we do get a different view of the period in this book. The description of the mortuary in Kensal Green, for example, is satisfyingly morbid and gives readers a flavour of things to come.
The character of Frances Doughty has a feel of some of the women we see in the stories of Sherlock Holmes: principled and redoubtable, she is the main driving force of the book. She is also a foretaste of the later suffragettes that play an important role in London’s history as she clearly upsets the men she meets with her no-nonsense questioning.
I met the author by chance at a crime fiction event and it goes to show how meeting fellow enthusiasts can lead to discovery of new books to read. A Case of Doubtful Death is the third book in the Frances Doughty series and I now hope to start at the beginning and carry on my enjoyable journey into London’s unsavoury past.
Thanks to the publisher, The Mystery Press, for sending me a copy of the book.
William Ryan’s historical mysteries featuring Captain Korolev, a Moscow Militia police investigator, are becoming another ‘must read’ for me. The books are packed with a wealth of period detail; set in the mid years of Stalin’s rule, the Terror is beginning to be felt collectively around the city and everyone fears the knock on the door in the middle of the night. There’s always a good mystery at the heart of Ryan’s books and The Twelfth Department is no exception.
Korolev is on holiday and intends to spend time with his young son Yuri, who has made the trip to Moscow by train. However, on the first day of Korolev’s leave he is asked to visit the apartment of an eminent scientist who has been shot dead. To his dismay, Korolev discovers that the ambitious and disliked scientist was undertaking research which is being monitored by those in power. He is taken off the case and travels with Yuri to the countryside, but during the trip his son disappears. After the death of another scientist, Korolev is seconded to State Security to investigate the killing and becomes embroiled in the political machinations between warring NKVD departments.
It’s usually around the third book in a series that familiar characters take on more substance and this is certainly the case with The Twelfth Department. Both Korolev and his sergeant, Slivka, have an interesting relationship, admiring each other’s capabilities but constricted by the roles in an increasingly paranoid department. The relationship between Korolev and Valentina, the woman he shares his apartment with, is also developed more and displays a softer side to the Captain. It also suggests an interesting sub-plot for the next book.
The Terror element isn’t overdone: it’s ever-present and pervades everyone’s decisions but the crime/mystery element is given space to flourish. Ryan always presents a solid police investigation and here, there are plenty of twists and turns until we reach the conclusion. The evocation of thirties Russia is excellent and even minor scenes, such as the description of the Moscow zoo and the delight that children take in watching the animals, bring the era to life.
Overall I think that this is the best book yet in a series that is going from strength to strength. The book isn’t published until the 23rd May but I was lucky enough to be sent a copy by Mantle, the publisher. And naturally I couldn’t resist reading it.