A Case of Doubtful Death

Written by Linda Stratmann
Review by Jasmina Svenne

The Life House, despite its name, is a waiting mortuary near Kensal Green Cemetery, in which corpses are left to putrefy to prevent accidental premature burial. When, on the night of 21st September 1880, its reliable orderly Henry Palmer vanishes following the sudden death of its director Dr Mackenzie, detective Frances Doughty is called in to find the missing man. But her investigations are hampered by the fact that nobody connected with the case seems to be telling the truth…

This is the third Frances Doughty mystery, but that should not hamper any new readers as key facts about the protagonist’s past are woven into the novel. Unfortunately the emotionless prose, which no doubt is an asset in Stratmann’s true crime books, means that this novel lacks pace for me. Without either dizzying highs or dark lows, the comic relief provided by Frances’ associates falls flat because there is nothing to contrast it with. Even the ending didn’t feel like it was building towards a climax.

At times, the central mystery feels lost as Frances investigates other cases, most of which turn out (too coincidentally?) to have at least a tangential connection with the main plot. Moreover I can’t help feeling Frances comes across as somewhat middle-aged for someone who, at 20, is still technically a minor under Victorian law. Apart from a flutter of interest in a potential love interest and annoyance at clients who lie to her, she doesn’t seem to have many emotions. Nor did I ever feel she was in real danger, which killed the tension.

On the other hand, the research into late-Victorian London seems extensive, and the description of the descent into the catacombs under Kensal Green Cemetery is effective. Recommended for readers who prefer mysteries cosy rather than high-octane.