Murder at Old St. Thomas’s

Written by Lisa M. Lane
Review by Laura C. Stevenson

London, 1862. The body of Thaddeus Morton, famous surgeon, sits upright and nailed to one of the seats in the operating theater of Old St. Thomas’s Hospital, where he had previously performed surgical miracles before his medical students. The cause of death: toxic inhalation of chloroform. Detective Inspector Cuthbert Slaughter and his American sergeant, Mark Honeycutt, are tasked with finding the murderer. As they interview suspects, their investigation provides a wonderfully researched portrait of Victorian surgery in which the use of anesthetics is still experimental and hygiene is ignored by all but a few progressive doctors and the nurses who have benefited from Florence Nightingale’s experiences in Crimea.

Slaughter and Honeycutt’s investigations take place mainly in the fast-changing borough of Southwark. Old St. Thomas’s has had to move because a prospective railroad line will pass inches from its walls. The new hospital is now near the Surrey Theatre, where a famous actor (and possible suspect) is playing Richard III in an attempt to bring Shakespeare back to working people. Aiding the investigation is Jo, an independent artist whose drawings feature in London’s penny presses. And always willing to help is Tommy Jones, a former workhouse boy who sleeps in the Slaughter’s kitchen at night but takes to the streets by day, fascinated by the theatre, the hospital, and the crime.

Lane’s book is filled with deeply developed psychological portraits, from the egotistical actor to the depraved Thaddeus Morton, who, as Tommy says, “pretty much everyone” dislikes enough to murder. The portrait of a city and a profession dealing with technological change is exceptional; the minutiae of Southwark’s streets are based on impressive historical knowledge. The fast-moving plot, the convincing connections between characters of different classes, and the eye-opening portrait of Victorian medical knowledge make this a first-rate historical mystery.