A Madeleine Karno Mystery
Atria Books, February 2015
From the publisher—
Strong-minded and ambitious, Madeleine Karno is eager to shatter the constraints of her provincial French upbringing. She wants to become a pathologist like her father, whose assistant she is, but this is 1894, and autopsies are considered unseemly and ungodly, even when performed by a man—hence his odious nickname, Doctor Death. That a young woman should wish to spend her time dissecting corpses is too scandalous for words.
Thus, when seventeen-year-old Cecile Montaine is found dead in the snowy streets of Varbourg, her family will not permit a full post-mortem autopsy, and Madeleine and her father are left with a single mysterious clue: in the dead girl’s nostrils they find a type of parasite normally seen only in dogs. Soon after, the priest who held vigil by the dead girl’s corpse is brutally murdered. The thread that connects these two events is a tangled one, and as the death toll mounts, Madeleine must seek knowledge in odd places: behind convent walls, in secret diaries, and in the yellow stare of an aging wolf.
Generally speaking, I’m not really a fan of the Scandinavian mysteries, mainly because they tend to be darker than I like. With Doctor Death, Lene Kaaberbøl has made me re-think my position. There’s something about this one that just doesn’t have that slightly dismal feel and it doesn’t hurt that I fell in booklove with Maddie. Here is a young woman who’s determined to follow her dream to be a pathologist despite 1894 society’s unwillingness to expose a lady to such horrors. Not only is she a brave young lady, unafraid of the restrictions placed on females, but she has a wonderful father who supports her ambitions, albeit reluctantly, and enlists her peripheral assistance with his autopsies. Add to that the very likeable Commissioner who feels right at home with Doctor Karno and his unusual daughter and you have a sleuthing triumvirate that is hard to beat.
In the case of the young girl’s death, their sleuthing is all that might lead to a solution to whatever it is that’s going on; without an autopsy, refused by the family, the cause of death must be deemed natural so the police are not interested in investigating. It’s up to these three to pose the necessary questions and search for the answers that will tie these deaths together and, at the same time, prevent an epidemic of respiratory disease. Maddie’s own irrepressible thirst for knowledge and the truth pulled me right along with her.
Oddities abound, such as an attack on a hearse, the discovery of an unknown and very deadly mite residing in the first victim’s nostrils, the haunting description of a mourning photograph, and the elderly wolf that lives in a convent. It is these little details that make this story seem so fresh and kept my interest at a high level, beyond my usual engagement with a very good mystery.
Now that I look back on it, I think it’s the characters, particularly Maddie, her father and the Commissioner, who drew me into this Scandinavian mystery kicking and screaming. The big difference is these people are really interesting and they all have a positive outlook in the face of death. I like them very much and am already wishing for the next book.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2015.