Tag Archives: late 1800s

The Worms Crawl In

A Case of Doubtful Death: A Frances Doughty Mystery by Linda Stratmann (The Mystery Press, $14.95, 283 pages)

A Case of Doubtful Death

Author Linda Stratmann is not shy about telling her tale in graphic detail. Get ready for an amazing visit to England in the late 1800s and an education in the means by which folks dealt with death and burial. Ms. Stratmann explores in depth the notion of death houses where the recently deceased are treated as patients and monitored by medical staff to assure that a loved one is not buried alive. The particulars of the monitoring of the dead, the care of the corpses and the maintenance of security are laid out in minute detail. The service is costly and not really an option for folks of the lower classes.

The notion of class and appropriate vocations for females during the Victorian Era are prominent themes in the Frances Doughty Mystery series. This book is the third in the series. Frances is a plucky young woman who has taken up the profession of detective after her father died leaving her in need of an income. She is aided by her sidekick Sarah, the former Doughty family housekeeper. Sarah is a burly, intelligent and no-nonsense woman who happens to be the oldest of eight children. Clearly, she is experienced in dealing with people.

An American counterpart for this series would be the Sarah Woolson Mysteries by Shirley Tallman that are set in San Francisco during the same era. Both series make ample use of dress codes and etiquette to give the reader a strong sense of the limitations placed on these capable and very smart young women who are struggling to make an honest living while furthering the cause of equality for their sex.

In Doubtful Death, the significant (read that dead or missing) characters work at Life House (a death house), the location for much of the tale. These men include several physicians and two orderlies. The tale begins with the death of one of the physicians and the disappearance of one of the orderlies, both occurring on the same night. Henry Palmer, the orderly who has disappeared, is the stalwart older brother in a family of five orphans. His sister and her fiance approach Frances Doughty in the hope of finding Henry, preferably alive.

Absent cell phones, the internet and medical technology common today, the pace of the search for Henry Palmer could have been laboriously slow; however, Francis makes good use of her shoe leather, contacts among the eccentrics of her city and foot messengers to solve the mystery. To Ms. Stratmann’s credit, the pace moves along well and her dry wit that is expressed through conversation among the characters is most entertaining.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “In the field of historical crime writing, (Stratmann) is bound to make her mark.” SJ Bolton

A Case of Doubtful Death will be released on September 1, 2013.

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I Am Woman

Death on Telegraph Hill (nook book)

Death on Telegraph Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery by Shirley Tallman (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 341 pages)

Author Shirley Tallman proves herself a true San Franciscan, even though she now resides in Eugene, Oregon. Period piece mysteries have a charm all their own with the absence of current-day electronics, modern modes of transportation and social mores. Tallman takes issue with the way women, especially accomplished women, were treated in the 1800s. Her main character, Sarah Woolson, is one of three women in California who have been admitted to practice before the State Bar. Ironically, both men and women discriminate against Sarah. Their efforts to keep her in her place and devalue her for lack of a husband and home are irritating but understandable considering the time in which the story is set.

Deep-seeted class issues also play a significant part in this mystery. Among the characters are a pompous wife and her meek husband, Oscar Wilde (yes, that Oscar Wilde), a young Jewish woman and two wealthy elderly women. The action takes place all over San Francisco; however, the initial murder victim succumbs on Telegraph Hill. The hill is a favorite place of artists, primarily writers, and a dalliance for Oscar Wilde is the prelude to mayhem on the hill.

The Telegraph Hill mystery is the fifth in a series. This reviewer found it easy to grasp the story line and the circumstances surrounding Sarah Woolson’s dedication to mankind and the downtrodden. Her father is a prominent member of the Bar and a notable figure in San Francisco. Sarah chooses not to trade on her connections unless it’s absolutely necessary. Lovers of The City and its history will enjoy this book in particular and most likely the series in general.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. The prior books in the series are Murder on Nob Hill, Scandal on Rincon Hill, The Cliff House Strangler, and The Russian Hill Murders.

“A vibrant, intelligent mystery series.” RT Book Reviews

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A Well Respected Man

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)

William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person.   He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual.   Well, mostly gay.   He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham.   And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned.   If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw.   While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave.   But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.

A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate.   The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances.   Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly.   What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.

The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China.   He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays.   Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight.   By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits.   Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.

This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham.   It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer.   Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history.   What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.

Christine Van Winkle

Used by permission.   To see  more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .

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