"The Anatomy of Death," Felicity Young

Pros: Interesting look back at the movement for women’s right to vote in England
Cons: For me, there seemed to be some tonal and genre confusion
Rating: 4 out of 5 (3 for me personally)

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Dody McCleland is a female autopsy surgeon in England at the beginning of the 20th century, one of a very few women allowed to practice any kind of medicine. Despite her unusual and forward-thinking career choice, she doesn’t entirely agree with her younger sister Florence’s flamboyant rallies and marches for women’s rights. She thinks a slower, quieter method would be more effective than the more militant stance taken by some women. But when a rally turns violent, Dody finds herself examining the body of one of her sister’s own friends, a lady of some station, who was apparently beaten to death.

Tensions between the women and the police rise. One police inspector, Pike, who particularly loathes the use of brute force to solve problems—particularly against women—manages to get several of the instigators out of the department even though he doesn’t agree with the women’s cause. Then he meets Dody, listens to the woman’s concerns about the suspicious death, and begins to suspect that something larger and more important is afoot.

The police superintendent is eager for any reason to get rid of Pike and smooth over the woman’s death; the women of the suffragette movement believe they have to up the ante in order to get anywhere; and Dody is caught somewhere in the middle just trying to figure out where it all went wrong.


 

Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death was an interesting read, but not quite what I was expecting nor looking for. The description of the book, title, and back cover copy lead me to expect a crime investigation novel within an interesting historical setting. Instead I found the inversion of that—an interesting historical setting with a whiff of crime investigation to tie it together into a coherent whole.

If you pick up The Anatomy of Death specifically looking for insight into the British movement to establish votes for women, and the kinds of divisions that existed among the many women who fought for those rights, you’ll get a lot more out of this than I did. The meat of the story is truly the ways in which people on both sides of the issue got worked up about it, and what they were willing to do in order to keep—or upset—the status quo.

Other than that there’s a faint touch of romance, some family squabbling, and a good look at class disparity in that time and place.

For me this book was just a 3 out of 5 largely because it led me to expect one kind of tale and then gave me another. I do think, however, that if you go in expecting what’s there, you’ll probably like it more than I did. There’s plenty of quirky interplay as Dody tries her hand at primitive forensic science, and Florence fancies herself a revolutionary over cakes and tea. The resolution of the mystery felt a bit like an afterthought, but did provide a nice tense climax to the book.

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