Written by Linda Stratmann — Private detective Frances Doughty first arrived in our bookshops in April 2011 in The Poisonous Seed. Set in 1880, the teenage sleuth embarked on her maiden case when one of her father’s wealthy customers died after drinking medicine he dispensed. The creator of the character, Linda Stratmann, is a psychology graduate who worked for many years as a civil servant before embarking on her literary career. Her first published book, back in 2002, was on the history of chloroform.
Frances and her loyal assistant, Sarah, certainly won’t put you to sleep. Their fifth case set in Victorian London concerns the death of overweight 49-year-old Thomas Whibley. Though it’s attributed to natural causes, his demise sets in motion a chain of events that has Frances looking back to a violent robbery 14 years earlier in order to solve a violent murder in the present.
Hubert Sweetman spent 14 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit – a robbery at his workplace, which left a man critically injured. Opinions over his guilt were split. He was seen in the vicinity at the time of the attack and had money problems, but he was also known as a good man, a loving husband and father. Now all he wants is to be reunited with the family he lost all those years ago, but it’s not going to be easy as they don’t seem to want to be found. Then to complicate matters, Hubert’s wife is found brutally murdered and he is arrested in Frances’ parlour. Why would anyone kill Susan Sweetman? Where has she been for the last 14 years? How can she prove Hubert Sweetman’s innocence?
Meanwhile, poison pen letters printed in the local Bayswater broadsheet have brought three rival diet doctors to her door, all wanting her to find out who wrote them. One of the letters blames new-fangled dieting fads for the death of Thomas Whibley. As Frances searches for Hubert’s missing family, she discovers a connection between him and Whibley. Could the family’s disappearance have something to do with the original crime? This is a case that has Frances searching for clues in newspaper cuttings about a long since closed music hall, and a train crash that claimed the lives of several of Hubert’s former colleagues.
Frances is an intrepid sleuth. Although she finds doors closing and brick walls appearing in front of her, she never looses her determination to uncover the truth. She always finds another thread to take up and pursue. She’s a good judge of character and despite her youth displays a maturity far beyond her years. The supporting cast of characters include a group of young lads who bear a striking similarity to those in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the ladies of the local Suffrage Society, of which Frances and Sarah are both members. Local detective Inspector Sharrock views Frances with a mixture of admiration and irritation.
There’s an awful lot going on in this book, but at no point is it too overwhelming, nor are there irrelevant passages. Stratmann shows her skill as a writer by making every word count and keeping your interest as a reader. She also shows her skill as a researcher, using real facts and situations she has unearthed and crafting them into the story with a variety of threads that neatly come together, with no gaps or holes. This book has got it all – murder, embezzlement, a miscarriage of justice and hidden secrets. A very satisfying read. Fans of DE Meredith and Lynn Shepherd will love this series. If you’re already a fan, you won’t be disappointed.
The History Press
CFL Rating: 5 stars