on 3 July 2011
It is 1929 and Dora Strang starts her first day's work as a filing clerk for famous (and charming) pathologist, Alfred Kemble. Starting with a gruesome murder, ending with a suicide and littered with a variety of overripe and dismembered corpses, this is, nevertheless, no murder mystery. Despite the attendance of Kemble at trials as an expert for the prosecution, it is not a courtroom drama. Nor, despite Dora's attraction to Kemble and just about everyone's attraction to her, is it a love story. It is, however, very sexy and a vehicle for such a display of wit and amusingly inventive similes as if a lost novel by Stella Gibbons had been discovered to set beside Cold Comfort Farm. Offbeat and amusing.
on 13 July 2011
A period thriller romance which hits the note perfectly, beginning with a well-observed overheard conversation on a bus between three gossipy women discussing the lurid details (and imagining much worse) of a murder.....
"And there had been 'interference'. The word caused their mouths to fold inwards round their gums as if they had just bitten into a pickle sandwich".
The heroine, Dora, who listens to this, is on her way to begin work for the pathologist who will be in charge of the case. Louise Levene has a deft, quasi Bensonian touch for dialogue and description...
"Meanwhile she seethed inwardly as the Fish female applied the starting handle to the conversation and steered it to some of her favourite spots".
The narrative follows the tracking down of the murderer but more importantly, traces Dora's own odyssey as she enters the adult world of first job and living away from home, boarding with Mrs Frith and eating (or hiding) the impossibly awful and mean little meals. A vignette of Mrs Frith reading a wrongly delivered News of the World with "righteous disgust" has a certain topicality, and it is thrown theatrically into the waste-paper-basket when her boarders appear for breakfast, only to be rescued afterwards for a further salacious session at her writing desk.
on 12 June 2012
Highly recommended by three of us -- two of us read it, another recently got the audiobook. Louise Levene's first novel was a very cool story about two lookalike models in the 1950s with a nice grisly ending. This one takes place in the 1920s and even more deliciously grisly, based on the rise of a 19 year-old girl in her job as secretary of a celebrity pathologist, called into all the most gruesome killings & a star of the media. Dora the girl has seriously saucy fantasies about her boss. Kemble's work is all about deducing from tiniest details, and there are a LOT of details, most of them extremely funny and sharpedged, especially the ruthless eavesdropping on humdrum lives and the clinically comprehensive autopsies. He relishes his professional status and power, sending defendants to the gallows not always for the right reasons -- a twisted creature in a gothically alluring way, like Sherlock Holmes meets Mr Rochester. Dora's landlady Mrs Frith is also a layered creation, hilarious on the surface with her disgusting Depression cooking, but also deserving a flicker of sympathy. I can imagine this as a tasty TV drama with someone like Cary Mulligan in it, giving the sex scenes their all. You really get the comedy AND the erotic edge on the audiobook. The author reads it herself in a husky posh voice very exactly & deceptively sweetly, it's like glossy chocolate with chilli bits in it (which is also highly recommended.)
on 20 December 2011
It looks like a period whodunnit..Dorothy Sayers in Soho, maybe..Lord Peter Wimsey plays pathologist..but don't be misled by the sepia tint or the well-turned ankle of the cover. It's a comedy - dark and rich as treacle - just nothing like as wholesome. And it slips through genres like sand through fingers -- the similes are catching. Louise Levene has a way with a metaphor that makes you wonder why you never saw things this sharply - and she turns dialogue so beautifully it makes you want to raise your own game - or read it aloud, when you've finished laughing. Nobody else sounds like this - though there are shades of the best black comedy (Muriel Spark kept coming to mind..or The Ladykillers crossed with Joe Orton, maybe) -- so the writing is deliciously old fashioned and completely modern at the same time.
There is a plot - unfolding over three days - too twisted to lay out here: the central characters a wide-eyed, would-be bluestocking (motherless Miss Dora Strang) and a world-weary star-pathologist (the heartless Dr Kemble). There are widows, aunts, corpses and a treasure of period detail (M.E Rathray's "Cold Meat and How to Disguise It" makes star turns). All alive and to relish -- like eavesdropping on an era. The real crime, underneath all else, turns out to be the War: what it did to men, women, class, press, sexual relations, Society (rampant Syphilis...) Like 'Visions of Loveliness' it draws you in, quick and tight. As you read, the film of the novel starts to play in your head and you find yourself casting characters: Beryl Reid could do the deliciously crazed landlady Mrs Frith. It's a world where no-one is as simple, or simply dismissed as they seem. Funny, smart and gruesome; read and cast it for yourself.
Dora Strang wanted to be a doctor like her father but her father did not consider it a suitable career for a young woman. It is the nineteen twenties and well brought up, middle class women are not expected to have jobs. Dora persuaded her father to pay for a secretarial course and she enrols with an agency.
She also takes up residence with a former employee of her fathers who runs a boarding house for paying guests. Dora's first assignment is as a filing clerk at a hospital - working for a pathologist. She has to file and cross reference post mortem reports in a complicated card index system. She is rapidly elevated to secretary once Dr Kemble discovers that she doesn't faint when faced with a dead body.
This is a well written story with interesting characters and plenty of black humour. I liked Dora herself with her medical knowledge gleaned from her father's library. Dr Kemble is a mysterious figure who is by turns likeable and dislikeable. The background is as gruesome as any horror story but will be of interest to true crime readers who may recognise traces of real crimes in the details.
I enjoyed this book and read it in a couple of evenings as I wanted to know what happened to Dora and the other characters. I loved the humour and I sympathised with Dora herself who is clearly not cut out to be a conventional woman of the era.
There's quite a bit about post-mortems in his suffering but interesting for all that. You can hardly call it a love story but it is an interesting narrative and the characters are Interesting, well drawn and not cliched. I can say any of the protagonists are especially likeable but that's probably what makes it so interesting. I felt this offering was paced better than Vision of Loveliness but the wry humour didn't seem quite so much in evidence. Possibly, it was not thought appropriate for the subject matter. I look forward to further work from the Levine.
on 10 March 2013
This is one of the best books I have read in a 'veh, veh' long time.
I normally read dark, slightly warped books with little in the way of laughter, this book incorporates both. With a cracking turn of phrase Levene paints sparklingly dark pictures.
Relish the fantasy of Dr Kemble, the cabbagey aroma or Mrs Frith, the inadequately short Hubbard and the stony cliff face of Dr Strang.
For the first time ever I wanted to reread a book the moment I finished it.
on 10 March 2015
I had to take a break part of the way through this because after laughing for half of it I was suddenly horrified by some of the frank gore, but this is my fault for being a wet blanket. The murders and the taking-sexual-advantage-of are a slap in the face after the sly, entertaining writing style, which makes it work beautifully.
Not quite sure I understand the main character's choice at the end though.
Dora Strang has entered a strange world. In fact they insist on calling her Mrs Strange. She is in fact neither strange or a Mrs, but it is all about perception and what other people think. As a daughter of a doctor, who just did not make the grade to be one herself she has still pitched herself forward into the world of work as a secretary.
Nothing perhaps untoward in that. But it is 1929 and girls of her class are not meant to be working in such professions, and certainly not in London on their own. But Dora is doing all of these things.
She is sent by the employment bureau to be a filing clerk in a department at the hospital. A department which was kept rather separate from the rest.
A hospital department that did not cure you as more find out what you died of. The department of Morbid Anatomy. The mortuary if you will. It's eminent head was Alfred Kemble, assisted somewhat crossly by Mr Hubbard who always felt his nose was being put out of joint and the keen nearly qualified doctor, Alex Vazard. Dora Strang found herself more than just a filing clerk.
For some reason this department had been going through filing clerks and secretaries rather quickly, but no one could tell Dora why. The battle of cross referencing this eminent man's work as well as typing, for which she was not originally employed for begins to take over her life and she is sucked into the work of this department and the lives of her colleagues.
Dora is learning about life from death. She is learning fast about life as she becomes more in love with it all. Her strength and stubbornness as well as not fainting at the sight of a dead body means she could perhaps survive longer than those before her in this particular department.
But there was something she did not bank on - passion, attraction and emotion. All of these were not able to be cross referenced in some report and filed away neatly. They had to be dealt with and dealt with swiftly. For me was Louise Levene's true undercurrent of the book. The descriptions of death, the fascination of how it can help convict a killer or an innocent person are covered in such detail that you would think this was what the book was solely about. But the people recording, investigating and trying to protect the innocent are more important and it is their story which kept me reading.
The author has captured what could be called "gallows humour", it made me smile in parts when the passages were related to death and all its ghastly descriptions. The characters were in equal measure quirky and normal, with flaws and faults, that made me chuckle when the passages were related to ordinary everyday things - such as listening to conversations on the bus or being caught reading a rather unseemly newspaper. I could see where the book could of gone and where it went was the right way but there were times where it meandered on, simply being filed away in that filing cabinet ready to be cross referenced at the end for the conclusion.
This is not a murder mystery, this is not true historical fiction, not really romance in its truest sense, more of an acceptance. it is a book which I cannot pigeon-hole other than excellent fiction, a gripping read with the right amount of death and humour. If those two things can ever be combined successfully it has been done so here.