New year, new commitment to reading & reviewing! I've been feeling super motivated to read and post on my blog! This is a refreshing change from December where I was in a terrible reading rut and had not posted any reviews at all! I really want to make an effort to post regularly and am happy that this will be my third post in January!
After finishing The Hazel Wood (Flatiron Books) by Melissa Albert, I decided to read Lene Kaaberbøl's A Lady in Shadows. I realized after requesting it through Netgalley that the book was the second in a series. *facepalm* However, the nice thing about mystery series is that they typically can be read out of order. The author provides enough details from the first book to elucidate the missing pieces, though if you're a reader that must start with the first book you should check out Doctor Death.
This novel fits neatly into the "feisty historical heroine overcomes the confines of her patriarchal culture". It's a popular trope. Do I love it? Absolutely yes. This book and character reminds me a bit of Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death. Both have seemingly strong heroines' that go against their society's gender norms to work closely with medicine, the deceased, and justice. While Franklin's novels take place in medieval Europe, Kaaberbøl's novels take place in 1890s France.
**Before continuing on, please note that this book contains violence against women
Here's a brief synopsis provided by the publisher:
"On June 2nd, 1894, in the wake of President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot’s assassination, France descends into chaos and riots in the streets of Varbourg. Many lives are lost in the mayhem, but when one lady of the night is found murdered with brutal incisions and no sign of a struggle, it is clear something is amiss. Madeleine Karno must ask herself the terrifying question: Do they have their very own Jack the Ripper in France?
Madeleine is no stranger to cases such as this. Though she is a woman in forensic pathology (a career considered unseemly even for men), her recent work with a string of mysterious deaths and becoming the first female student admitted to the University of Varbroug has earned her some semblance of respect. But there’s only so much her physiology courses can do to help her uncover the mysteries of a mad scientist’s brutal murders. Madeleine must do whatever it takes—investigate the darkest corners of the city and even work undercover—to track down a murderer at large. But if there’s one thing the press has right about “Mademoiselle Death,” it’s this: it takes a woman to find a killer of women."
I think this is a solid book - somewhere between a cozy mystery and more graphic mystery/thrillers like Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy. I mention this and the above trigger warning not because I think readers should be shield but rather as a caution. Though I have thankfully never been the victim of a violent crime, it's sometimes hard to stomach continual images of violence against women in all aspects of the media.
As a history nerd I really appreciated the historical details in this. This turn-of-the-20th-century time period is one of my favorites to read and study. Kaaberbøl includes key components of the time period like xenophobia, nationalism, militarism, and eugenics. She particularly articulates the views and processes of prostitution. France like many western countries was in the midst of reform movements whereby middle class reformers sought to improve their countries and standards of living. Some of these movement were extremely beneficial to society, such as city sanitation, more healthcare services for women and children, education and worker's rights, etc. We still live with the benefits of these reform movements. However, there were other questionable movements such as the regulation of prostitution. In some respects it can be argued that this benefited the prostitutes by decriminalizing it and creating mandatory health examinations to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Though the intentions may have good (and you know that they say about the road to hell) in practice the regulation of prostitution - and women's bodies - was rife with class prejudice and racism. I think the author does an admirable job at accurately portraying that in her novel. Moreover, one of the characters is bisexual. Kaaberbøl also accurately portrays the consequences of being "outed" as well as the unfortunate classification of same-sex sexual relations as a "degenerate" or "deviant" behavior in the medical and emerging field of psychology. So, in my opinion, the author handled complex historical material with a deft hand!
Though I applaud the author's historical accuracy, a few things fell short in this novel, at least for me! I think the story was bogged down by the minutiae of the heroine's daily life and did not provide enough investigation. I enjoyed the dynamics of Madeleine Karno's experience as the first female student at her university as well as her relationship with her fiancé, I would have liked a stronger focus on how our heroine was uniquely equipped to solve this crime. Additionally, the ending is a classic deus ex machina. I think the ending is what really curbed my enthusiasm for the novel. Without revealing details, it all seemed a little convenient and neatly wrapped up for my taste.
That being said, I would say if you're a fan of historical crime mysteries you very well may enjoy this! If however you are a fan of mysteries or thrillers that are unexpected or completely blow your mind, you would probably be best served to look elsewhere.