Thursday, 3 August 2000

Judith Cook: Death of a Lady's Maid (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 561

Simon Forman was a real Elizabethan doctor, prominent enough to earn an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and a biography by A.L. Rowse which mostly disagrees with the DNB entry. The series which starts with Death of a Lady's Maid makes him a detective in addition to his medical and astrological pursuits. This is an interesting premise (though it is not by any means the only historical crime story with a real detective or with a medical detective). The plot itself has a connection to themes found in the drama of the period. It centres around a body found in the Thames which is a young woman earlier treated by Forman. He discovers through post mortem examination that she was bound before being thrown into the river, so that the death was not the suicide it appeared to be. By bringing scandal to the wealthy family which employed the young woman as a lady's maid, Forman creates an enmity which could cause him a lot of problems as one lacking in influence by comparison. He has to solve the murder before he loses his livelihood.

The problem with Death of a Lady's Maid is that despite being an academic specialising in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Cook has a really bland writing style. The novel is cardboard which never comes alive, and it reads like a pale imitation of Ellis Peters (who is not an author I admire). Cook is perhaps more knowledgeable about her chosen period, yet the background remains unconvincing for the same reasons that Peters' do: an inability to really think in a pre-twentieth century mindset.

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