Devoured, by D.E. Meredith
In 1856 the least fashionable and thus least socially acceptable area of medicine in which to practice was forensics. Being a surgeon rather than a decent, respectable doctor was considered bad enough but pursuing a living that involves dissecting folk was just beyond the pale. In addition to the social stigma, those few brave men of science willing to devote themselves to forensics also had to overcome the problem of funding their research. The gentlemen scientists of the Victorian era had to rely on wealthy patrons to sponsor their work and, unsurprisingly given the mood at the time, forensic specialists did not enjoy an abundance of generosity. It is this difficulty in funding the development of their science that leads Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant Albert Roumande to assist the police with their investigations in the hope of securing a nice annual stipend from the local constabulary.
In Devoured, the first Hatton and Roumande mystery, the proto-CSIs are called upon to assist Inspector Adams of Scotland Yard in solving the murder of glamorous society contrarian Lady Bessingham. While Lady Bessingham might have courted controversy with some of her intellectual pursuits and her patronage of certain adventuring scientists and rare specimen collectors, there appears no reason for her murder. Employing their cutting edge forensic techniques (no smoking near the corpse, sniffing said corpse for peculiar odours, making use of cutting-edge [ha!] German bone saws, etc), Hatton and Roumande find themselves on the trail of a cache of seditious letters that has the potential to change the face of society and religion irrevocably.
Devoured is an intriguing historical murder mystery. D. E. Meredith has clearly done a great deal of research, both into the Victorian period in general and into the early days and development of forensic science in particular. The level of detail that she provides gives the novel a real air of authenticity and the period tone is maintained throughout the entire story. While authors are often good at recreating the place and material circumstances that provide the setting for historical fiction, recreating the speech patterns and dialogue choices of the time is often far harder. Happily, Meredith’s writing doesn’t falter when it comes to dialogue and so there are no jarring misstatements to distract the reader from the story.
The mystery surrounding the death of Lady Bessingham is perhaps a little slow to get going as there is quite a bit of scene setting and basic character building at the beginning of the book. However, this slow build-up really helps to establish the period setting and to introduce Hatton and Roumande as deep, sympathetic characters. This slow beginning could also be due to the fact that Devoured is the first book in a proposed series featuring the forensic duo and so is tasked with firmly establishing the characters in readers’ minds. There’s actually not that long to wait to see how other Hatton and Roumande mysteries develop as their second adventure, The Devil’s Ribbon, is due to be published in February 2013.
Although Devoured may begin slowly, the investigation into Lady Bessingham’s murder does ultimately involve plenty of action as Hatton and Roumande investigate a host of nefarious characters and challenge accepted societal mores. The process of identifying the killer involves some truly ingenious detection and the story twists and turns from the darker side of the docklands to the steamy jungles of Borneo to the gentile drawing rooms of Victorian London’s upper class. Hatton and Roumande’s investigation leads them to face plenty of danger and dubious dealings, with the conclusion to the mystery being disturbingly dark. Devoured is a great beginning to what could potentially be an excellent historical mystery series.