Review: Antidote to Murder

Antidote to MurderAntidote 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.



About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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7 Responses to Review: Antidote to Murder

  1. kathy d. says:

    You’ve certainly convinced me to purchase this book, read it and give it to a friend who loves historical mysteries, especially with strong women protagonists — and which deal with social and health issues.
    I also liked the first book in the series, with only one peeve; that is the suffragist movement took a hard hit for their tactics. That was a huge battle, and some women in England died fighting just for the right to vote. And over here, women had to fight for the vote for years and resorted to all sorts of tactics, including hunger strikes in prison — where they were brutally force-fed, as Felicity Young describes in book I. A very well-done movie about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who led the suffragist movement during WWI is “Iron-Jawed Angels,” with Hillary Swank and Frances O’Connor. I highly recommend it.
    I agree about reproductive rights being hard-won, having been involved in that movement years ago. Unfortunately, there are those who are trying to overturn these rights all over the country. Women’s organizations are fighting back though.
    I look forward to reading this book and passing it along.


    • angelasavage says:

      I thought this one would be right up your alley, Kathy. And I will look out for Iron-Jawed Angels – sounds fascinating.

      I was reading recently about the ‘Jujitsu suffragettes’, women who trained in martial arts to defend themselves during the protests, which often turned violent as you point out. I actually sent the material to Felicity in the hope that she’ll be able to use it in a future novel.

      And sadly, yours is not the only country where conservative elements seek to overturn women’s reproductive rights. That’s why I think novels like Antidote to Murder are important, as well as entertaining. What is it about those who forget their history being doomed to repeat it?


  2. Angela – Oh, I must – absolutely must- read some Felicity Young! I’ve wanted to read this series for quite some time. I am glad that the series deals with some of the issues women have had to face (still do!). There is still such a long way to go and one of the areas in which we really do need work is in reproductive rights. As Kathy says there is a lot of frightening effort to ‘turn back the clock.’ Without reminders like this, it’s very hard to convince people of how truly devastating that would be. I’m glad Young deals with it here.


  3. kathy d. says:

    Good points Angela and Margot. However, I think that those who want to overturn reproductive rights here are not those who cared about women’s lives 40 years ago nor do they now. The run-up to the presidential election brought out so much sexism, and worse, misogynistic comments about rape and awful remarks directed to all women, but especially the poor. Each right-wing candidate was outdoing the other. And, unfortunately, all of their scheming ends up with health services for poor women being shut down — where only health check-ups, screenings and family planning went on, so in Texas, over 100,000 women lost medical clinics, the only place they could go.


    • angelasavage says:

      I’d say the parallels between the US and Australia are almost uncanny, Kathy, except that conservative, misogynistic, anti-poor ideologues tend to be the same the world over.


  4. Pingback: My year of reading 2013 | Angela Savage

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