A Dissection of Murder by Felicity Young
Felicity Young has written a gorgeous historical crime fiction in A Dissection of Murder, foregrounding the real Suffragette march for the Women’s Vote in November 1910, where the London police behaved so brutally towards the marchers, that three women were killed and many more seriously injured. It has been suggested, though not proven, that Winston Churchill gave the order to the police to behave in the appalling way they did. They not only killed and maimed, but also sexually assaulted many of the women.
That Churchill hated the Suffragettes is a strong possibility. History records that just the year before, on November 14, 1909, the Suffragette, Therese Gurnett, smote Churchill around the head (which was mostly protected by his hat) with a dog whip, as he alighted from a train in Bristol. Gurnett was arrested and gaoled. Her whip was apparently given to Mrs Churchill as a souvenir.
Young mentions the possibility of Churchill’s belligerent behaviour, but does not pursue it. She does touch on the women’s hunger strikes in the prisons where they were incarcerated, however, giving a few details of the squalid, distinctly unhygenic conditions which prevailed, killing many of those made to endure the horrifying forced feeding procedures introduced by the prison authorities. Her chief protagonist is Dody McCleland, England’s first female autopsy surgeon who is an assistant to Dr Bernard Spilsbury, the real-life forensics expert whose scientific evidence convicted Dr Crippen of the murder of his wife.
Dody is shocked to realise that the dead body of the Suffragette she has been asked to examine as one of her work duties, is actually that of a friend of her sister. In the name of dispassionate analysis, she feels constrained to pass this duty on to another medical examiner, but keeps a sharp eye on the events that are unravelling when she observes that her replacement is merely whitewashing the crime in an attempt to protect the reputation of the London constabulary.
Young says in her Author’s Note, that the character of Dody McCleland is based on her grandmother, who was one of only a handful of female graduates from Trinity College, Dublin. Bernard Spilsbury did actually have a female assistant, one Hilda Bainbridge, but not until ten years after this story takes place.
This is a very satisfying crime fiction because it not only fulfils the expectations of the genre, but it reminds the reader of the life-and-death struggles for the women’s rights we now take for granted; struggles that, a mere century ago, were experienced by increasing numbers of valiant women who had everything to lose in resisting the entrenched patriarchy of the day. It would make a wonderful film.