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