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

Image result for victorian seance
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.

Image result for seance downton abbey
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?

Known and unknown – two women photographers of the 1890s

Jane Windeyer, by Laura Praeger (National Portrait Gallery)

Recently I was hunting through Trove for references to early women photographers.  My novel Taken At Night features a photographer named Beatrix Spencer who operates her own studio in Sydney in 1900. In those days there were many amateur women photographers but professionals were rarer.

Laura Praeger was quite a successful society photographer in Sydney. Her clients included some of Sydney’s best known families and she mingled with the wealthy and well-connected.

According to the National Portrait Gallery, she was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in around 1859 and came with her family to Queensland when she was a child. She married Francis Pasqual Praeger in Brisbane in 1880 but the marriage ended shortly afterwards, and she then relocated to Sydney where she began working as a photographer. She worked in partnership with a photographer named Chubb between 1889 and 1891 before establishing her own studio. She exhibited work in the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. She apparently closed her studio after remarrying in 1894.

Her portrait of Sir Alfred Stephen was described by the Illustrated Sydney News “decidedly the best that the aged statesman has yet had taken.”

In 1891 she photographed the delegates to the Australasian Federation Convention. One of these was taken using the largest size of negatives made at the time, and the Sydney Morning Herald described  it as “magnificent”, saying that “the faces and figures of the delegates represented are brought out with great clearness and distinctness.”shearers-camp_001

The other woman is unknown, but I hope further research might reveal her name. I came across an article called “Amongst the Unionists at Wilcannia” which appeared in the Sydney Mail in September 1894. The author was described as “a lady photographer”.

There was a shearer’s strike going on at the time and the strikers were encamped outside the town. The photographer took a horse and buggy out to the camp and went in on her own. In her own words:

“I explained that I was a photographer and desirous of getting some suitable views of the unionists’ camp. He replied, ‘ I know you are, but you won’t get my photo, that’s a certainty.’ ‘Very well. Please tell me where I shall find Mr. Nolan.’ He told me to go straight ahead…I found a great crowd of men, all variously occupied, some sitting about smoking, others’ reading, and a good number collected round some men throwing weights and poles ; more were gathered round the grocers’ and bakers’ carts. Catching sight of one of our local storekeepers with a group round him, I made inquiry for Mr. Nolan. Someone found him for me. I stated the object of my visit. I could see by the questioning look on several faces round, that they wanted to know what a solitary woman’s appearance amongst them meant.

Mr. Nolan said he would see what the men’s views were on the matter, and proceeded to call them together by ringing a bell. … My spirits fell a little when I saw how few hands went up for and how many went up against a photo, being taken; but I am not easily discouraged — so I let them all talk for a while. I afterwards learned that there were about 500 men altogether.

After waiting a while, I said to them, ‘ Now all you men who do not wish to be photographed just stand back ; I am going to take the rest.’ I soon found that there were quite a good number that would be photographed, especially as it was to be done by a lady.”

She took a number of photographs which appeared in that issue and they are a marvellous document of the shearer’s camp and Australian labour history.

It is a mystery why her name was not given if her photographs were good enough to publish. Perhaps she was not a professional photographer but rather a skilled amateur. It seems that she must have lived in the Wilcannia area because she recognised “one of our local storekeepers” at the camp.

Both women broke new ground. Praeger overcame an unsuccessful marriage at a time when divorce was still scandalous, to set up her own successful studio. The “lady photographer” seized an opportunity to photograph an important news event in spite of initial difficulties. How many more are out there?


On 19 November I was in Melbourne for the 25th anniversary convention of Sisters in Crime, SheKilda, held, of course, at the St Kilda Town Hall.

Actor Nicole da Silva speaking at Shekilda3

Sisters in Crime was launched in 1991, inspired by the USA organisation of the same name, which was founded in 1986 by Sara Paretsky (author of the fabulous VI Warshawski series) and other women crime writers.

Its objectives include bringing together all with a passion for women’s crime writing, discussing books, film, tv etc in the crime genre and promote women’s crime writing. They run the Scarlet Stiletto short story competition  and the Davitt Award for the best crime and mystery books by women each year.

I hadn’t been to a Sisters in Crime event for over 10 years, as they are held in Melbourne and I’m in Sydney. The last occasion I came third in the Scarlet Stiletto crime short story competition. This year I won the competition for best opening paragraph based on the  “Body in the Town Hall” – a staged crime scene in the Town Hall foyer. Maybe I should go more often!

Organising an event like this takes a lot of work, and it is largely due to its volunteers that Sisters in Crime is still operating and stronger than ever, proving that women have a lot to say in this genre.

A letter from the Boer War

In Australia,  Anzac Day commemorates the landing at Gallipolli by Australian and New Zealand Forces on 25 April  1915. But in 1900, when people spoke about “the war” they meant the Boer War. Australia sent several contingents to South Africa to fight on the side of the British Empire against the Boer (Dutch-Afrikaaner) settlers.

The first Australian troops arrived in South Africa in December 1899. Australian horsemen were very valuable in the guerrilla or commando style warfare which became increasingly frequent in 1900. The war was tough not only on the soldiers and the Australian nurses who also went out, but also on the horses they brought with them.

On 25 April 1900 a newspaper reported a letter from an Australian soldier, Private L. Holm of the NSW Mounted Infantry. He wrote to his wife:

“We have had a very rough time of it since my last letter to you…Our company has been in two battles. In the first we had eleven of our men wounded and two missing. The next battle we were in, one of our men was killed and two shot themselves by accident, myself and also my horses had a very narrow escape. You see, one man out of four has to hold the other men’s horses while they fight. It is even worse than fighting, because the Boers try to shoot the horses as well as the men. …We are having rather a hard time of it for food, as we are allowed only three biscuits a day and sometimes a pound of meat. I and another private had permission to go shooting deer. we shot three or four, the largest weighing one hundred pounds. They made a very delicious meal. It was so nice that the officers sent up for some… I think the war will soon be over, and I for one shall not be sorry, for I am anxious to get back home again.”

The Kiama Independent, 24 April 1900, p.2

However the war did not end until May 1902. More than 250 Australians died, the number who actually served in unclear but was around 15,000.