I read about the book ‘The Coroner’s Daughter’ by Andrew Hughes in the BBC History Magazine. As my readers know I like to read historical fiction especially if it takes place at the onset of forensic sciences. Well, Hughes opens the story with a severed hand and floating baby lungs in a glass bowl with water. I was hooked.
The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, in 1816. Our main character is Abigail Lawless. She is eighteen years old and an only child. Abigail knows that her mother died of typhoid during an outbreak that affected a huge part of her neighbourhood. Her mom died just before she turned seventeen. Her household is small but it is tight-knit unit.
Abigail’s father John is the city coroner and despite it being a conservative time, he encourages Abigail to read up on the sciences. In fact, he often takes her with him to lectures on various scientific matters. He lets her respond to scientific articles and then signs her letters to the editor to ensure publication.
Ewan Weir, her father’s assistant, does not only secretly admire Abigail’s intelligence, he saves her from harrowing situations and watches over her. He clearly struggles with his role as a man who is expected to set the rules but every time his curiosity wins. What did Abigail find out and how does it fit in with everything they heard at inquest and learned from the autopsies?
The book starts with the death of a stillborn but as indicated above, the floating of the baby’s lungs show that the baby had breathed. The baby’s mother is what we would now call a nanny in the rich, prominent family of the Neshams. Before the inquest is held the nanny, Emilie Casey, dies. She had been admitted (read: incarcerated) to a hospital where Abigail had managed to see her briefly. When it is revealed that Emilie committed suicide Abigail is sceptical. She doesn’t believe that the wounds were made as described. She had seen Emilie and gotten a pretty good look at her.
Abigail’s quest to find out the truth about Emilie’s baby and the mother’s death leads her to find the baby’s father. When she does he isn’t what she expected. He too wishes to know the truth and helps Abigail along the way. More details pop up about the Neshams and their extended family and this leads to a series of deaths, murders, intrigue, and betrayal.
We meet the Brethren, a conservative, religious group whose members and practices make Abigail wonder about religion, the role it should play in people’s lives, and whether it can ever stand in the way of justice.
During a ball, Abigail slips away and finds a small group gathered around a life-size doll. It is an automaton of a young man seated at a desk. I immediately thought about the movie Hugo. In the movie, the automaton is the connection with Hugo’s father, his past, and the man who he works for now. Fully functioning the automaton is capable of drawing but as it is broken, Hugo needs materials and knowledge to fix it so he can finally see the picture. The same happens here. The automaton sets out to draw, dipping a nib in ink, and starts to make fluid motions. At first all lines seem random but then they start to connect and form a woman in a flowing dress. The automaton dips his head and it seems as if it is done. But then he perks up again and starts to scratch line across the woman’s face and a strike-through follows that is so forceful, it rips the paper. Was this a message or a programming fault?
Emilie’s death is followed by the traumatic death of one of Abigail’s friends, Emily Gould. Here too Abigail questions what happened. As Emily lies in her father’s dissecting room, Abigail sneaks in. She checks her friend’s body but also pays tribute to their friendship. She find a disturbing message that leads her back to the Neshams’ extended family.
During her quest for the truth, she almost gets killed and that she survives is testimony to her resourcefulness, her intelligence, determination, and courage. I can see Abigail turning into a medical examiner. She learns a lot more about herself and ultimately, her own mother’s death.
At the ending we think we have our answers when Abigail confront’s the man she holds responsible for Emily Gould’s death. That confrontation almost turns deadly. And after this, the real revelation of people’s motives and secrets will take you through two twists you didn’t see coming. I do not want to describe anything as it will spoil your reading pleasure.
One point of critique: those two last plot twists could have been worked out in more details, hints, etc. throughout the story. Both twists are possible and have a foundation in the beginning of the story but neither is fine-tuned throughout the book. If you read the book, let me know what you think about this. The discussion is as always, on my blog’s Facebook page.
Other book reviews can be found here.