Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I read An Empty Death by Laura Wilson as part of my project to read all the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award shortlist before the award ceremony on the 29 October.
An Empty Death is the second in a series featuring Inspector Ted Stratton, the first of which Stratton's War, which I have not read, won the 2008 Ellis Peters.

The story is set in London during the summer of 1944 when the capital was attacked by German 'doodlebugs', the V1 bombs. This second blitz resulted in children being re-evacuated to the country and terrible stress on a war weary population, who had thought they were finally on the verge of victory after D-Day.

The story revolves around three main characters; Inspector Ted Stratton who after rescuing a Mrs Ingram from a bombed out house, has to investigate the murder of a Doctor Reynolds who worked at the Middlesex Hospital; his wife Jenny, who is working at the local Rest Centre and whose sister Doris takes in the shell shocked Mrs Ingram, while she waits for her husband to come to collect her; and Sam Todd, a mortuary attendant, who has assumed a false identity.

Stratton soon has another murder on his plate as the body of a nurse is discovered in a disused operating theatre, while the mortuary attendant Sam Todd leaves the hospital claiming he has been 'called up' but reappears a few weeks later with a new identity as the smooth talking Dr James Dacre, with the aim of starting a relationship with a beautiful young nurse, Fay Marchant.
Jenny and Doris are also faced with an identity problem in that when Mr Ingram on leave from the army comes to collect his wife she claims he is an impostor.
Then Dr Byrne, the hospital pathologist, asks to speak with Inspector Stratton.....

Laura Wilson does a good job of creating wartime London and the dialogue, narrative and characters are superb, especially the villainous Todd/Dacre, but unfortunately there are some flaws in the plot.
The reader is asked suspend one's belief in normal sensible behaviour, because it is wartime, or because many years ago Aunt Ivy had been locked up in an asylum.

Would someone who had recently tried to commit suicide, and is clearly very disturbed, be left a few days later on their own in a house with carving knives and a gas cooker?

Would an unknown doctor be taken on, especially in wartime with security concerns, without some reasonable enquiries being made? For instance checking the medical register.

Unwin had described Professor Haycraft as 'a nice enough old buffer', .........'a fundamentally lazy person who wouldn't be too bothered about checking up on his carefully prepared references.'

I have known numerous hospital consultants [as relatives, friends, and acquaintances] and not one of them would I describe in those terms; you don't make it to consultant grade if you are either nice or lazy, in fact old doctors are a bit like old generals, awkward.

The chameleon like James Dacre, a fascinating creation, has the charm, the looks and the bare faced nerve but would he really be able to fool doctors and senior nursing staff, when he couldn't even understand the term plumbum oscillans.

Despite these criticisms I was able to suspend my concerns and really enjoy the book as simply entertainment with a nice balance of drama, tension and tragedy.

But I don't expect or think it deserves to win a second Ellis Peters for Laura Wilson.

Update: It appears that the date for the CWA Awards is now the 21 October according to Shots Magazine, and I will have to read faster. I had been informed by a very reliable source it was the 29 October.


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Oh what a pity, as I did so enjoy Stratton's War. Actually, Crimefiction Reader pointed to some plot flaws in that, which I did not think particularly flaws. But maybe I am not as sharp on historical crime fic as the experts! I do think Laura W is an excellent writer, and I've very much enjoyed all her books so far.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Maxine, I enjoyed the book and the excellent writing but felt I had to point out what I thought were flaws in the plot.
I am going to compare the books and choose my winner of the Ellis Peters, so far the Kerr is by far the best book, probably falling flat on my face in the process.
Perhaps it is because I come from a very medical family that I don't believe doctors could be fooled that easily, and the old style matrons could definitely spot a fraud from the end of the ward.

12:15 PM  

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