Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbol
Atria Books: February 17, 2014 (Historical Mystery)*
Doctor Death is a very interesting start to what promises to be an intriguing historical mystery series set in nineteenth-century France.
What makes Doctor Death stand out is it’s unique heroine, Madeleine Karno, daughter of a forensic doctor. Due to the death of her mother at a young age, Madeleine has shadowed her father in everything from visits to his patients to autopsies of the dead. Unlike her contemporaries, Madeleine has no desire to marry and be subject to the authority of a husband, rather Madeleine would much rather pursue a medical education and follow in her father’s professional footsteps becoming the new “Doctor Death”. Unfortunately for Madeleine, her father has no intention of letting this happen, or even realize that this might be something that his daughter would like to pursue:
My father was reluctant to let me assist when he examined the dead. He said it could only hurt my reputation and my future – by which he meant my chances of marriage. For the most part, my father was a man of progress, absorbed by the newest ideas and the latest technology. But he was incomprehensibly old-fashioned on this particular point (p. 12).
But when her father is injured, Madeleine is allowed to take a much more active role, hence the mystery element to Doctor Death. When the bodies start piling up, Madeleine pursues every lead. She not just trying to find the murderer, she’s also trying to find the source of a potentially dangerous contagion.
Doctor Death was an interesting start to the series. The mystery element was unusual and I really liked how it was medical in nature as it called on Madeleine’s scientific skills. After finding the first corpse it soon becomes clear that the bodies of the dead are carrying some sort of transmittable “bug” and tracing the origins of this forces Madeleine to take an authoritative role in the investigation. In fact, Madeleine’s gender often allows her to question certain individuals when the legitimate investigators are stymied.
The narrative style was also evocative of time and place; the setting seemed almost other worldly. The mystery was told in Madeleine’s own voice and I got the sense that it was more of journal than a novel. First person narration is not always one that works for me, but I really liked how certain tidbits were recounted by Madeleine; sometimes it was about the case and sometimes it was about her own personal life. For me, this was a very effective style of writing because it gave readers a real glimpse into the life of a young woman at this time, and it was rather heartbreaking to see how bleak Madeleine’s prospects were. Only through marrying will Madeleine break free from her father’s rigid rules about her dabbling with dead bodies, but at the same time, marrying could strip Madeleine of the freedom that she does have by remaining her father’s assistance. A paradox, indeed, and it’s one that I really interested to see unfold in the next book in the series.
Doctor Death introduces readers to a very unusual young lady, one that’s more intrigued by dead bodies than marriage or homemaking. Whether this young lady will get the chance to become something other than wife or assistant is what will keep me coming back for the next book in the series. I recommend Doctor Death to those who like their mystery with great characters and atmospheric settings.
*Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.
If you, like me, enjoyed the haunting historical atmosphere, I highly recommend that you try Alex Grecian’s The Yard. It’s the first in a fabulous historical mystery series set after the Ripper murders in London. Not only is the setting very evocative of the time, the characters that inhabit this one are also very well drawn, there’s even a young woman playing assistant to her doctor father; however, she has yet to play a large role in the series (but I have hopes!).
For another series that shows a woman daring to dream of something more than her lot in life, try Kate Alcott’s The Daring Ladies of Lowell. This one isn’t really a mystery, but there is a slight mystery in the story. I think it will appeal to readers that were interested in Madeleine’s determination to become something other than wife. See my full review.
Due to the number of people that look down on Madeleine for her interest in medicine and death, I have also included Anna Lee Huber’s The Anatomist’s Wife, which shows exactly how hard it can be for a woman that has stepped outside her prescribed role. Forced to draw her husband’s anatomical dissections, Lady Darby is reviled in good society. It will be interesting to see to what extent this type of judgement Madeleine will be subjected to.