Crime Scene: FELICITY YOUNG The Insanity of Murder. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
This is the latest in a series of intelligent, well-researched and engagingly written crime-fiction novels set amid the suffragette battles of early 1900s England.
Young’s first book, A Dissection of Murder, released in 2012, introduced readers to Dr Dody McCleland and Chief Inspector Matthew Pike. McCleland is not just an unusual woman, she comes from a most unusual family. With Bohemian parents of Fabian sympathies, McCleland and her sister Florence are well-financed and supported by their family, unhampered by any expectations of correct behaviour for young ladies. Despite this, McCleland’s medical qualifications are no match for society’s limitations on women, hence her position as an autopsy surgeon. She is considerably less accepting of many aspects of the suffragette movement than her sister Florence, and this novel initially spends considerable time setting up the background to McCleland, her family, the suffragette movement and Chief Inspector Matthew Pike. Its main crime purpose is to introduce the reader to the difficulties experienced by suffragettes and the death of a supporter at a rally that turns violent.
Antidote to Murder was released in 2013, with McCleland combining her role in the morgue with that of providing medical services to women via a free clinic. A fundamental factor of the entire series is the way that it looks at the limitations and restrictions that women faced during the period and, in this case, the lack of access to safe abortion and the extreme measures women were forced to take as a result. In the Afterword to this book Young notes that it was particularly inspired by the notes of the real-life Dr Bernard Spilsbury (McCleland’s boss in the novels), wherein many deaths were recorded as the result of criminal abortion.
The third novel, The Scent of Murder, released in 2014, takes McCleland out of London to the country, where the discovery of what seems to be an ancient skeleton requires her medical expertise to reveal the truth. This novel, in particular, leads the reader to consider the stupidity and cruelty of the restrictions placed on women, without ever stepping over the mark into a man-hating, chest-thumping feminist treatise. In fact McCleland’s somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the suffragette movement solidifies, as her sister’s involvement in their more radical actions escalates.
Which leads to The Insanity of Murder. In this outing, McCleland and Pike’s relationship is cementing into something that’s loving, supportive, unconventional and secret; while McCleland’s sister Florence has crossed the line into extreme radicalism, ending up being arrested for the bombing of the Necropolis Railway Station.
As is the way with all these novels, Young combines real-life events and people within her fictional settings. In The Insanity of Murder there are references throughout to the Jujutsu Suffragettes – a group who were trained in jujutsu by Edith Garrud – who served as bodyguards for the suffragette leadership. This came about at the same time as the so-called Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which was designed to change the authorities’ tactics of brutally force-feeding suffragette hunger strikers.
In the novel, Florence, a past victim of force-feeding, uses her jujutsu training during the bombing of the railway station:
Before he could connect though, her training kicked in. With snake-like speed she grabbed his arm and twisted her body under his. His lantern shattered as it hit the floor For the briefest of moments, he lay across her shoulder like a sack of coal. Then, with an arch of her back and a kick of her hip, she sent him tumbling through the air to land on the tiled floor like a slab of dead mutton.
Needless to say, this is fiction and the real-life stories about Edith Garrud will show that many of her Jujutsu Suffragettes weren’t quite as physical as this. In The Insanity of Murder this encounter with a guard at the station happens before the bomb goes off, and after the bombers have been spied by an eye-witness – coincidentally an escapee from one of the increasingly common women’s asylums for treatment of so-called ‘hysterical’ conditions. Her identification leads to Florence being back in jail and potentially being once again subjected to force-feeding, which makes McCleland worried for her mental as well as physical well-being.
The nature of the charges that Florence is likely to face will depend greatly on the fate of the guard she has removed from the vicinity of the explosion, who is comatose in hospital and whose life hangs in the balance. Events are complicated further by the location of the railway station and the number of body parts littering the scene – the Necropolis having other corpses held in it at the time. McCleland is working on the various autopsies of possible victims to establish their pre-bombing mortality, but Pike is forced to step back from the investigation as his friendship, at least, with Florence and her sister is well known.
Dr Dody McCleland and Chief Inspector Matthew Pike share equal focus in these novels, individually and as a couple. Secret lovers, they fear disapproval by society and by their respective professions if their relationship becomes common knowledge. They also share scepticism about aspects of the suffragette movement.
Given that McCleland has struggled to achieve a career, with autopsy surgery a compromise, her attitude towards the suffragettes is extremely conflicted, as is Matthew Pike’s. Supportive of the movement’s aims, neither of them approves of all their methods – particularly the escalating use of violence and grand gestures to keep the cause at the forefront of the news and in people’s minds. A strong-minded woman, McCleland is more interested in participation than activism, and she works hard every day on achieving her aims, sticking with her pursuit of medicine despite disapproval and opposition from many quarters.
Matthew Pike, on the other hand, is supportive of McCleland not just because of their relationship, but because he’s constantly engaged by her intellect and admiring of her career and independence. He’s also the widowed father of a teenage daughter, Violet, and struggling to find a balance between societal norms and allowing her to make her own decisions. The dilemma he faces when the grandmother who helped raise his daughter wishes her to attend an overseas finishing school (Violet wants to undergo nursing training) is palpable. Allowing his daughter to make her own choices is a difficult step for him, for all that he knows anything else is hypocritical. Obviously exposure to the McCleland sisters has an impact here and Pike struggles with the realisation that his daughter is a person entitled to decide her own life.
McCleland and Pike are a great partnership in these novels. The love, sex and attraction are always there, but they are not the defining elements of their relationship. Mutual respect, acknowledgement of each other’s strengths, and the need to share in covering up the relationship create something that’s more than just a romantic element, more than just a distraction from the main action. Particularly when the book is exploring the way society sought to control women.
Partly as a result of enlightenment and partly because of his strong sense of fairness, Pike has sought to be an influence on parliamentary authorities enquiring into the inhumane use of force-feeding for the suffragette hunger strikers. His direct and detailed descriptions of the mechanisms behind force-feeding, as well as the potential solution (the Cat and Mouse Act), is something he’s proud of:
He’d spared no details in his explanation of the physical constraints placed upon the women involved: the insertion of the oversized tube, the bleeding from the nostrils, the gagging, vomiting and chest pain that he’d heard likened to a heart attack – and the cruel metal clamps used to force the mouth open when the nostrils became too damaged for the tubes.
When McCleland discovers the gross surgical interventions performed on a woman who has died after taking a dose of bleach, Pike is called upon to assist with the investigation. While her death may have been suicide, what happened to her before her death shocks everyone – even the taciturn and misogynistic Dr Spilsbury. This investigation is intertwined with the bombing story in many ways and means that Pike and McCleland continue to work together despite Florence’s role in the bombing.
What The Insanity of Murder reveals about the fate of women sent to rest cures, and asylums for treatment for ‘hysterical’ conditions is truly sobering:
‘The point is that these operations very often lead to infection and death. If survived, the procedures render a woman unable to have children. Most of the women who undergo this kind of surgery are in the prime of their lives. Surgery is something that should never be performed lightly. Do insane men have their sexual parts cut off – certainly not! So why should it be considered therapeutic for women?’
But then this is a world in which sexism is about control and limitation. It’s at all levels and indicates a level of disrespect on the part of the perpetrators, as evidenced by Spilsbury lecturing McCleland:
‘Never assume that I won’t be lurking around the corridors ready to leap on you for smoking your pipe. It’s not dignified for a female doctor to smoke a pipe. I am a man, and for a man smoking is perfectly acceptable, but in you the habit is abhorrent …’
Given that both use the pipe smoke as a way of masking the unfortunate odours associated with performing autopsies – well, readers can draw their own conclusions.
While the possibility of what will happen to Florence lurks in the background, as a result of the Cat and Mouse Act, she’s admitted to a women’s asylum – the same one that the witness who identified her absconded from and the same one that the suicide victim has also run away from, which partly makes her the woman on the inside for McCleland and Pike, but also creates a number of problems in itself, particularly as the doctor who runs this home has some very odd attitudes about ‘hysterical’ women’s conditions and women in general. As the orderly, an ex-military man, advises Florence when he confiscates a book from her:
‘Doctor Fogarty says reading’s the very worst thing a woman of delicate inclinations should be doing – it’s one of the reasons so many women get themselves into trouble these days.’
While it might seem that a lot of this series is about the desperate need for early feminism and emancipation of women, that message is conveyed by the actions, the situations and the comments of the characters. It’s not as heavy-handed as it could seem from this review, nor is it possible to avoid acknowledging the dreadful situations that many intelligent and capable women found themselves in. It’s also obvious that the men who supported, loved and cared for them are equally disrespected, confined and disempowered.
The resolution of crimes remains an important factor in the day-to-day lives of the police and their forensic/medical assistants, regardless of their gender, but what the Dody McCleland series does so masterfully is provide glimpses into the lesser-known crimes: the mutilation and incarceration of women for no good reason; the desperation of some whose causes should have been seen as just and right; and the way the overt use of power by a few scared, sad, but powerful individuals can actually obscure reality from all but a few particularly observant individuals. The final twist in The Insanity of Murder illustrates that point exactly and, as a bonus, it comes as somewhat of a surprise. The cliffhanger ending seems to indicate there’s more to come from McCleland and Pike, which is a very good thing. It’s a partnership that’s well worth following.
Felicity Young The Insanity of Murder Aus Impulse 2015 ebook only 320pp $2.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.