A Case of Doubtful Death: A Frances Doughty Mystery by Linda Stratmann
Publisher: The Mystery Press (2013)
ISBN 978-0-7524-7018-4 £8.99
In this, her third case, the reputation of Frances Doughty, Victorian female private detective has grown substantially. Now known as a discrete London investigator she has become an expert at solving small mysteries like lost pets, unusual ones like the alligator who is reputed to bask daily in the Serpentine and gruesome ones like murder. Her reputation has in fact grown to such an extent that she now has a fictional counterpart, Miss Dauntless, the lady detective of Bayswater, heroine of a series of romance novels.
In A Case of Doubtful Death, Miss Doughty investigates the fascinatingly bizarre world of the Life House. This is a mortuary where the corpses of clients are left to decompose after deathwhilst mortuary staff check that there is no mistaken diagnosis and ensure the client does not suffer the fate of being buried alive. Frances is engaged to find Henry Palmer, a young mortuary assistant and one of the Life House’s most reliable employees, who went missing the same night that one of the founders of the Life House, Dr Mackenzie, was found dead. As Frances keeps digging to uncover the truth surrounding Palmer’s disappearance and Mackenzie’s death, her investigations, despite the obstructive male medical establishment, lead to the uncovering of fraud, blackmail, and finally murder.
Frances Doughty is a great character, a strong young woman determined not to accept the strictures of Victorian society when it comes to her career. Consulting detective is an unusual career for a woman in Victorian times but Frances is an unusual woman. She talks composedly of distressing medical matters with doctors reluctant to accord her the same respect as they would a man, she has bodies dug up and even dresses as a man; escaping the confines of social convention to further her cases. She has a keen wit, “he smelled of gutta-percha and the burnt rubber scent of dead sap was the liveliest thing about him”, but she is not a revolutionary, Frances keeps her thoughts to herself when they do not serve her clients or her cases.
It is a pity then that there are too many minor characters clogging up the story, and consequently not allowing the character of Frances to take centre stage; there seems little opportunity for the reader to get to know her better. The narrative is similarly hampered with the main plot interspersed with too many sub plots which slow the action down at critical junctures. While these stories are cleverly plotted so Frances can eventually unravel them, Miss Doughty is involved in too many cases in this latest episode for the main narrative to compel.
The novel’s setting is perhaps its strongest suit. The intriguing and strange place that is the Life House is expertly described with a level of detail that would satisfy the curiosity of the most exacting reader and here the author’s non-fiction writing is a huge asset. Throughout the novel there is an obvious and intimate knowledge of Victorian life, from the polite side to the wild side that both absorbs and reassures the reader.
A Case of Doubtful Death will surely not be the last report we have of Frances, the doughty lady detective of Bayswater.