The Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone (Book Review)
Format: Paperback, 342 pages Publisher: Anchor Canada Published paperback: February 24, 2009.
The Anatomy of Deception is historical crime fiction at its best.
It is 1889 in a Philadelphia hospital where Dr. Ephraim Carroll, among his colleagues, is witnessing autopsies conducted by their professor, the brilliant Dr. William Osler. The physicians are using the principles of analytic detection to make diagnoses and heal sickness.
To acquire a fresh supply of cadavers for dissection to teach his students anatomy, Dr. William Osler, head of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, is required to bribe the morgue attendant to be absent during the autopsies. There are those who oppose autopsies and seek an end to the unholy practice. During a session in the morgue an ice chest containing the corpse of a young woman, whose body had been abandoned in the street, is opened by Dr. Osler, only to be slammed shut immediately after. Dr. Carroll observes that both Dr. Osler and one of the other medical students, George Turk, are visibly shocked when they see this woman.
Who is she? How did she die? His interest piqued, Dr. Carroll soon decides to find out who the woman was, and what killed her. When one of Dr. Carroll’s acquaintances dies and is linked to the dead woman, he pursues the matter further. As his investigation into the mystery deepens he begins to uncover shocking truths.
Throughout the story there are well researched historical bits that delve into the medical discoveries to save lives such as the introduction of surgical gloves and aspirin, as well as new surgical techniques to reduce shock and infection.
There are several historical characters incorporated into the book: the artist, Thomas Eakins, scandalized by painting nudes and the primary suspect in dishonouring a socialite found dead; an innovative surgeon, Dr. William Halstead, and the pathologist, William Welch. They play important roles in the story by providing interesting background. Secondary characters to take note of are: Abigail Benedict, a lovely and wealthy woman who wins Ephraim’s heart while withholding hers; Mary Simpson, allowed to become a doctor under Dr. Osler’s tutelage, and assists women in trouble. Minor characters have their moments where they almost outshine Ephraim during his investigation: prostitutes, a Pinkerton detective, a tavern owner with his bouncer, and a police detective named Borst.
Mr. Goldstone has written his suspenseful mystery with unexpected twists, exploring areas that pose dilemmas to Ephraim: whether to follow his conscience when doing so might not serve the greater good; the limited choices of pregnant women; and the narrow-mindedness of others that makes scientific progress difficult.
I enjoyed the book, finding the author wrote excellent characters located in Philadelphia’s late Victorian high society by providing an in-depth look. His descriptions of the locale, the social etiquette of the 19th century, the interplay between medical professionals and the cultural leaders in the community are well depicted. I would recommend this book for those interested in historical crime with added suspense.