Book review – The Insanity of Murder, by Felicity Young

24737460I only discovered Felicity Young’s series of historical mysteries about forensic pathologist and surgeon Dr Dody McClelland last year.”Forensic pathology”, I hear you say “Pah! been there, done that”. But Dr McClelland is unique. She is working as an autopsy surgeon in pre-World War I London.

The Insanity of Murder is the fourth in the series of novels about Dr McClelland written by Western Australian author Felicity Young. Dody (Dorothy) has become an autopsy surgeon because no other avenue in surgery is open to her. She works under Bernard Spilsbury, the famous (or notorious) forensic expert who gave evidence which convicted the murderers in a number of well known cases such as that of Hawley Crippen, and the “Brides in the Bath” murders.

Dody comes from an unconventional family of Fabians and her sister Florence is a suffragette. The stories of the series are set against the background of women’s struggle for the vote in Britain, which was not attained until 1918 for women of property over 30, and 1928 for others.

Much of the appeal of this book and the others in the series lies in the historical background. In The Insanity of Murder we learn about medical treatment for women with “hysteria”, the dramatic sacrifice of suffragette Emily Davison, and the brutal horror of force feeding suffragettes on hunger strikes. We also see the prejudice, lack of training and racism in the police force.

In the first novel Dody formed a romantic  relationship with detective Matthew Pike, and this relationship grows closer through the series. In this book Florence is in trouble with the law and Pike and Dody’s relationship is attracting attention.  Dody is faced with choices – should she lie to protect her sister or be truthful to the police? Should she marry Pike or keep her job?

Despite  the serious subject matter, the tone is fairly light and the book is an easy read with cozy overtones. There were a few points in the plot that were not resolved, and the villains tended towards stereotypes, but the story is intriguing and the main characters are endearing. I hope there are more to come.



Séances and Spirits

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A fake medium exposed

The second book in my series featuring photographer Beatrix Spencer and detective Fergus Blair in 1900 Sydney is called “The Dark Room”. I wanted to introduce  “spirit photography”, the phenomenon of photographs which appear to feature ghostly forms that was so popular in the Victorian era and early twentieth century.

In 1900 Sydney was preoccupied with death. New South Wales had sent soldiers to the Boer War and even in Sydney people weren’t safe from the bubonic plague, which eventually killed over 100 people that year.

Even so I was surprised by the abundant evidence of spiritualism when I started researching. In 1894 T. Shekleton Henry, a Sydney barrister, wrote an expose of a Sydney spiritualist medium in his booklet “Spookland”. He attended a number of seances held by a Mrs Annie Mellon. Here is a description of a seance he attended:

“I saw an irregular luminous appearance on the right side of the curtain. It gradually increased in length, and then shifted its position to the centre, and shortly assumed the form of a man about six feet high,enveloped in white drapery…
The effect of this apparition was indescribably weird, and whatever the impression may have been upon those to whom it was not a novelty, it certainly seemed to me to be a most awesome thing.
Here before me was a form resembling and yet not resembling a human being, and said to be a denizen of another world – a shadowy substance which seemed to gaze upon the company with passive dignity…”

Eventually he exposed the tricks that Mrs Mellon used to create these effects. She would conceal herself behind the curtain, and use mannequins, mimicry and gauze to create the “spirits”.

Nonetheless I found an advertisement for seances conducted by Mrs Mellon in 1901 in Queens Hall, Pitt Street, for 2 shillings and sixpence admission. Could it be the same woman?

In March 1900 Mr Henle was advertising a ‘trance address’ and ‘clairvoyant descriptions’ in Newtown for ladies.

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Even the staff at Downton Abbey were into it.

A young medium named Alice Praed fell foul of the law and was tried in the Criminal Court in 1900 for false pretences. The prosecution alleged that she told a Mrs Catherine Parry “that she had power to cause the spirits of the deceased’s husband and the deceased children of Catherine Parry to speak to her. As the result of these conversations it was alleged that Mrs. Parry was induced to buy accused a suite of furniture, dresses, and various articles of jewellery, and to make a will in her favour. According to Mrs. Parry, accused, who practised as a spiritualistic medium, shut her eyes at the first trance, made a couple of jerks, and then the daughter of witness spoke through the medium and told witness to be very kind to the medium. At the second seance witness had an interview with another daughter, who said she was teaching school in Heaven and wearing a black dress,and that the medium must have one like it.”

A sad story that shows the power of spiritualism at this time.

Slums and crime fiction

In Taken At Night, some of the story is set in The Rocks, which was one of the poorest and most run down areas of Sydney.

Image result for lady slum visitor victorianSlums often featured in crime fiction in the nineteenth century. One of the most famous examples is The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by New Zealand author Fergus Hume, set in Melbourne in the 1880s.

There is a scene where the detective Kilsip guides the lawyer Calton behind the ‘brilliant and crowded scene’ of respectable Bourke Street, and reveals another world in the slum alleys of Little Bourke Street where a ‘weird light’ shines.

They perceive in the gloom ‘a man cowering back into the black shadow, or on the other [side] a woman with disordered hair and bare bosom, leaning out of a window trying to get a breath of fresh air’, children whose cries mingled with a ‘bacchanalian’ song of a drunkard, and silent rows of Chinese, whose faces showed only ‘stolid, Oriental apathy’. Calton ‘wondered how human beings could live in such murky places’.

The symbolism of two spheres, rich and poor, in the metropolis had been used many years before by English ‘travellers among the poor’ who discovered in London ‘two nations, East and West’. Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor, called himself a ‘traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor’ and recast the slum dwellers as ‘tribes’ who might be observed in an anthropological manner.

While Melbourne had its Little Bourke Street, Sydney journalists were inspired by the official tours preceding slum clearances in the 1880s. ‘It would surprise many’, a journalist accompanying official tours of Sydney’s backstreet slums  wrote, ‘to see some of the rookeries which are to be found in many of our leading and most fashionable thoroughfares’ (Daily Telegraph 9 February 1889). The writers described the inhabitants as primitive or animalistic, and their homes as lairs, dens, rabbit warrens and rat burrows.

Yet these images of the slum promoted the progress of the colonies and their economic wealth. No great city was complete without a slum.

What are the slums in modern crime fiction? Or have we done away with them altogether?