"Symptoms of Death" starts out promising enough: Edward Boswick, the fifth Earl of Dunsford, has invited a small party of intimate friends to his country estate of Montmarsh near the little village of Newton-Upon-Sea; when while at dinner, a distraught kitchen maid, bursts in upon the guests, threatening to kill the earl with a carving knife. It turns out that the maid (Elsie O' Riley)'s young man (George Stirling) has been murdered, and Elsie seems to believe that the earl had something to do with George's death. Fortunately for all, the village's lady doctor, Alexander Gladstone, is present at this select dinner. And she competently takes over by helping to disarm the hysterical Elsie and removing her from the scene. Dr. Gladstone doesn't believe that Elsie is really dangerous or that she is actually out to do the earl any harm. She believes that Elsie is just distraught, and that all she really needs is for someone to listen to her woes and to offer her a shoulder to cry on. So you can imagine the good doctor's surprise when she arrives at Montmarsh the next morning to find that the earl has been murdered, and that Elsie is the only suspect of the crime!
Dr. Gladstone however still refuses to jump to conclusions; and her preliminary examination of the earl's body bolsters her belief that Elsie is not the murderess everyone believes her to be. For it looks as if the earl was first strangled to death and then stabbed. Not everyone however (esp the village constable, Mr. Snow) shares Dr. Gladstone's view. Dr. Gladstone, however, does have one ally: Nicky Forsythe, the earl's distant relative and a barrister. Together, Gladstone and Forsythe start looking more closely at the other members of the house party to discover who, other than Elsie, had a reason to wish the earl dead, and who actually carried out the deed.
While the mystery is interesting enough, I had problems with Paula Paul's prose style -- it was a little too stagy for my taste. Also the characters left a lot to be desired: Dr. Gladstone was a little too cold and remote, while Nicky Forsythe was at times a little too vapid! It made the attraction between the two, while probable and believable, incredibly boring. Most of the other characters in this mystery novel were more or less familiar stock types -- the seemingly upright nobles who were really reeking of corruption and debauchery; the gossiping and malicious countess; the wife of easy virtue, etc. Only two characters broke the mold: Dr. Gladstone's housekeeper-friend, Nancy, who in spite of her belligerent and pushing ways, happened to be the only intelligent and interesting character in this mystery novel; and the Constable Snow, who because of Paul's reticent depiction, comes across as being a rather enigmatical, shadowy character, who may or may not be corrupt. With all my nitpicking, you'd think I'd advise against reading this book all together. To the contrary: the mystery is really quite intriguing and engrossing. And Paul does a rather good job of maintaining that air of suspense, so that you have no choice but to carry on reading in order to discover who murdered the earl and why. I just wish that the primary characters (Gladstone and Forsythe) had been worthy of this clever little murder mystery.