Antidote to Murder is the second Edwardian era crime novel by Felicity Young to feature autopsy surgeon Dr Dody McCleland and police Chief Inspector Matthew Pike. I was a fan of the first, A Dissection of Murder, and the sequel is a worthy successor. Antidote to Murder offers insights into early twentieth century detection, medicine, class and gender issues in the context of a thrilling read.
Dr Dody McCleland divides her time between the Home Office, where she assists Dr Bernard Spilsbury in the ‘Beastly Science’ of autopsy surgery, and a women’s health clinic. Her two worlds collide when a scullery maid, who unsuccessfully seeks Dody’s help to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, turns up dead, the victim of a criminal abortion. Someone is clearly trying to frame Dody and she is ordered by the coroner to stand trial for the crime.
With so many candidates from among her disapproving and jealous detractors, it is a challenge to figure out who is behind the slander–especially when Chief Inspector Pike is unavailable to help, working undercover for Special Branch to identify Dutch and German spies.
Antidote to Murder is historical crime fiction of the not-so-cosy kind, taking the reader deep inside the slums of London’s East End as the city is caught in the grip of the 1911 Dock Strike. Young poignantly evokes the limited choices available to English women in the early twentieth century and the real dilemmas they faced–not only for women of Dody’s class, choosing between marriage and a career, but for women living in poverty, whose ghastly options in response to unwanted pregnancy included criminal abortion and infanticide.
The suffragette movement, which was a major feature of the plot in A Dissection of Murder, simmers away in the background to Antidote to Murder, while the romance between Dody and Pike, which simmered in the first book, moves to a new level. The way this subplot unfolds is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the book: Young allows her characters to act with integrity in the face of difficult decisions, remaining consistent with the values of the time while avoiding cliché and neat solutions. Brilliantly done.
Young notes in an afterword that the book was inspired by her reading of the real Dr Bernard Spilsbury’s autopsy notes at London’s Wellcome Library. ‘The poignancy of each death recorded solely on a single, yellowing palm card struck me deeply,’ Young writes. ‘Many of the deaths were attributed to causes rarely seen today; for example, death by criminal abortion.’
Young’s novel reminds us that women’s reproductive rights were hard won, as was the right to a professional career–battles that continue today in many parts of the world.
But more than a history lesson, Antidote to Murder is a cracking good crime read. I can’t wait to see what Dody does next.
Antidote to Murder by Felicity young (2013) is published in Australia by Harper Collins.