Book Review: Death at the Priory by James Ruddick

Death at The Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A well-written true crime mystery and an in-depth look into the role of women in the Victorian period. Compelling reading! 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

In 1875, the beautiful and vivacious widow Florence Ricardo married Charles Bravo, a dashing barrister. The marriage seemed a happy one, but one night, four months after the wedding, Bravo collapsed. For the next fifty-five hours, with some of London’s most distinguished physicians in attendance, Charles suffered a slow and agonizing death.  All the doctors agreed: Charles Bravo had been poisoned.

The dramatic investigation that followed was covered in sensational detail by the press. So great was public interest in the case that coverage of it eclipsed the prime minister’s negotiations with Egypt, the Prince of Wales’ Indian tour and the conflict in the Balkans. The finger of suspicion pointed at various times at suicide, at Mrs Cox the housekeeper, at George Griffiths, a stableman with a grudge, and at the remarkable figure of Florence Bravo herself.

Death at the Priory is a gripping historical reconstruction and startling portrait of a woman, a marriage and a society. The brilliant conclusion uses new evidence discovered by the author to demonstrate conclusively who really murdered Charles Bravo.

Favourite Quote

“An unhappy woman with easy access to weedkiller had to be watched carefully.”

(From Death at The Prioy, by James Ruddick, page 172)

Review

It’s not often that I review non-fiction on Sammi Loves Books, because I tend to dip in and out of it, but I read “Death at The Priory” from cover to cover, and was completely gripped by the case.

I enjoy reading about true crime, especially if in an historical context, and especially if said crime remained unsolved, and if it could be classed as a type of “locked room” mystery.  I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the death of Charles Bravo before, given my interest in Victorian history and true crime.  By all accounts, it was covered with relish in the media of the day, eclipsing events on the world stage, even.

Death at the Priory is extremely well-written.  The evidence is presented clearly, in an easy to understand, easy to digest manner, without becoming heavy or requiring the author to dress it up with dramatic prose.  Although some passages are quite graphic – yes, there is a reference to sex in the book’s subtitle – it does help in providing a context in which Charles Bravo’s death occurred.

Florence Bravo, wife of the dead man, was certainly an interesting woman to read about, with a colourful life, and a tragic ending. She had been unfortunate in as much as she’d had to endure two unhappy marriages to husbands who were abusive towards her. The prevailing opinion of the day was that this was a woman’s lot, and she had to suffer it with grace and silence.  Florence, unconventionally for the time, did not believe she had to accept this.  She believed she had a right to be happy and if that meant away from her husband, she would not be forced to remain with him…

Charles Bravo is not painted as a sympathetic character at all, and I found myself having little concern for him in his plight.  I thought the author’s conclusions in his attempt to solve the case were definitely plausible, but of course, after the passage of so much time, and with all those being involved long dead, we will never know the truth for certain.

A fascinating read, one which I recommend to those interested in true crime, or who are interested in the role of women in Victorian society.

Rating

Book Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige

Death at Bishop’s Keep is the first book in The Victorian Mysteries staring Kate Ardleigh by Robin Paige.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Great characters, a wonderful setting and an interesting mystery…one of the most enjoyable cosy mysteries I’ve read in the last few years. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Kate Ardleigh is everything the Victorian English gentlewoman is not–outspoken, free-thinking, American…and a writer of the frowned upon “penny-dreadfuls.”

Soon after her arrival in Essex, England, a body is unearthed in a nearby archaeological dig–and Kate has the chance to not only research her latest story…but to begin her first case with amateur detective Sir Charles Sheridan.

Favourite Quote

“What did y’expect?” Sir Archibald asked pettishly.  “Bad mannered as bison, police.  Brainless.  Tramping about, never minding where they put their boots.  Almost as bad as women,” he added, “whisking along in their deuced skirts.  Shifty as a squadron of street sweepers.”

(Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige, page 104)

Review

As the first book in a series, I think this did remarkably well.  Sometimes there can be an excessive amount of background information slowing the pace of an opening book, but that wasn’t the case here.  I thoroughly loved everything about this cosy mystery.  Kate Ardleigh is wonderful as the main character and is supported by a fantastic cast.

Kate is headstrong, determined and independent but most importantly, she is curious.  It’s amusing that she is a secret author of sensational novels and that she is actively seeking material for her storylines.  Sir Charles Sheridan is highly intelligent, with an interest in all sorts of things.  From the sciences to photography, and pretty much everything else, he is a useful chap to have around.  He’s also sensible and inquisitive too.  The aunts were interesting characters, and polar opposites.  One was really nice whilst the other was the worst kind of horrible – to everyone.

The author – a husband and wife joint effort – captured the essence of the period.  From the (shockingly) rampant casual prejudice against Americans and the Irish, to the difficult position less well-off family members could find themselves in – part-servant-part family, and usually not accepted as “one of us” by either side, social and class divisions are not glossed over.  This adds an extra dimension to the story, making it utterly believable.

The possible development of a romantic interest was well-written and convincing.  But, most importantly, it doesn’t stifle Kate’s character.  Having an interest in Victorian occultism, it was interesting to see The Order of The Golden Dawn take a prominent role in the story, and to have a number of their famous members make an appearance.  Most notable inclusions were W.B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.

I have very quickly fallen in love with this series, and am already part way through book two, Death at Gallow’s Green.  So far I’m enjoying it, and have my fingers crossed that it will live up to the high expectations set by Death at Bishop’s Keep.  If you like historical cosy mysteries and have not yet read any of The Victorian Mysteries, I can’t recommend this book to you enough.

Rating

Book Review: Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings

Except the Dying is the first of The Murdoch Mysteries by Maureen Jennings.

February, 1895.  Toronto.  When a young woman is found murdered, her naked body discarded in a quiet lane one freezing February night, Acting Detective William Murdoch is determined to find the culprit, even though he soon finds himself up against some of the most prominent gentlemen in the city.

As Murdoch starts his investigation, no one is willing to talk, and those who are do not know who the young woman is.  However, he eventually discovers that she is Therese Laporte, a runaway maid from the Rhodes residence.  But he quickly realises this is only the beginning of the case.  It seems everyone connected to the girl has something to hide, but can he navigate his way through the lies and half-truths he is spun before anyone else dies?

I was first introduced to Murdoch via the fabulous TV show, which I love.  However, I was a little hesitant to a read the books that inspired it, worried that I would spend my time comparing the book to the show instead of enjoying the story.  However, I needn’t have feared.  I loved this book; I couldn’t find fault with it.  The characters differed enough not to allow for comparisons, which certainly helped.

The historical detail provided within the story easily brought nineteenth century Toronto to life.  It, like many Victorian cities, could be a dark, dangerous place, where life for many was often terribly harsh.  The descriptions the author provides within the story are vivid; when she described the cold, I could feel it.  When she described a room, I felt I was there.  The characters were especially engaging and life-like.  No detail was omitted, recreating an authentic time full of authentic characters.

If you like the show or the period in which this book is set, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.  The second book in the series, Under the Dragon’s Tail has already been added to my To Be Read list and I look forward to reading it.

Short Story Review: The Black Veil by Charles Dickens

It is the year 1800, or thereabouts, and a young doctor has recently opened his own surgery.  All he is waiting for is his first patient.  However, none seem to be forthcoming.  Days pass and still no patients arrive.  That is, until late one night, a woman, dressed in mourning attire and a black veil, is admitted to see the doctor.  Her identity is completely hidden beneath the fabric, and although the doctor cannot make out any of her features, except that she is a singularly tall lady, he can feel her eyes on him, watching him, but she doesn’t speak.

Eventually the doctor breaks the silence and asks whether there is anything he can do for her.  By this time he has come to the conclusion that she might be a local madwoman. Finally she declares that she is very ill, but that she is there on behalf of another, one who’s condition is grave.

In reply the doctor the announces that a moment cannot be lost if this person is as ill as she claims and he will attend them at once.  But rather bizarrely, the woman says no, it would be useless.  Instead, she instructs him to come at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.

The doctor protests, saying that it makes no sense to put it off, it surely will only make matters worse, but the woman won’t be moved.  Before she leaves she gives vague directions as to where the doctor can find them tomorrow and then makes her exit.

But what awaits the doctor the following morning?  And is he really too late to be of any use?

I can honestly say that I didn’t expect the one big surprise in the story.  In true Dickensian style, the plight of the poor is vividly recounted, and his sympathy for them through his words is clearly evident.

I came across this short story in Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century, selected by David Stuart Davies.