The Coroner’s Daughter
Recently, I treated myself to a trawl through Bikini Books, a legendary secondhand bookstore in Gordon’s Bay, South Africa. It is the kind of shop that gifts you with surprises, if you take the time to look. One such book was The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes. It is a whodunnit with the coroner’s daughter, Abigail Lawless, taking up the investigator’s mantle when those in authority aren’t brave enough to wade into uncertain waters. This book gifted me with a fearless female protagonist, a satisfyingly twisty plot and the gentle glow of a romantic subplot.
In honour of Abigail’s scientific principles, I present to you…
A Treatise in Five Parts on the Glory of The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.
Abigail Lawless is one of life’s unashamed individuals and I love it.
In support of this claim, I present the opening line of the book:
For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.
Abigail Lawless is, as mentioned above, the coroner’s daughter. Compounded by the (long) illness (and subsequent death) of her mother, Abigail develops particularly close ties to her father. She shares his scientific interests and her curiosity in this field occasionally borders on compulsion. His ‘workroom’ (aka the coroner’s morgue) is in a building at the rear of their house and it is a place with which Abigail is intimately acquainted.
But there is more than her interest in forensic science to set Abigail apart. Abigail is out of the ordinary because she has empathetic, sincere relationships with people from all walks of life. Her curiosity and care for others sets her apart from most of her peers.
Having been brought up in an unconventional way in an unconventional home and with an unconventional father, Abigail is destined to be out of the ordinary. Abigail’s involvement in this story – which would have turned out very differently had she not been involved – shows us that it is her individuality that allows justice to prevail.
The plot is SuRpRiSiNg
Full disclosure: I speed-read the last few pages of the book because I NEEDED to know what happened. In retrospect, taking a bit more time and reading at a normal human speed would have helped me enjoy the ending a whole lot more. Resist the temptation to fly through it. Trust me, there is an (implied) HEA.
The plot focuses on the mystery of Miss Emilie Casey’s alleged suicide and – prior to that – the murder of her newborn infant. The forensic evidence in both cases is inconclusive, which limits Mr Lawless’ findings. Abigail’s curiosity prompts her to gather additional information that casts the case in a wholly different light.
While Abigail wants the truth, there are powerful forces working against her. Miss Casey was a maid working in Mr Nesham’s home. Mr Nesham, along with Dr Labatt and Judge Gould, are all leaders in The Brethren, an evangelical church led by a Mr Darby. They do not wish for these deaths to become a public matter and so pressure is applied. Abigail’s father operates only within the bounds of the forensic evidence, but Abigail runs afoul of these powerful men with her incisive questions and ceaseless digging. What initially seems a simple act (hiding a “scandalous” event) is actually a many-layered saga of competing ideologies, personal hurts and revenge.
A creeptastic setting
The story takes place in Dublin in 1816 – the year when there was no summer. For a variety of reasons (some of which Abigail herself theorises) the weather remains cold and miserable through July and August.
Add the eerie weather to the visceral descriptions of Dublin in 1816 and you’ve got yourself a bit of magic. This book hits that sweet spot: enough description to paint a vivid picture for the reader, but not so much that you get bounced out of the story by tedium or boredom. The grit and grind of life in 1816 is present and vivid, but Abigail’s matter-of-fact, rather optimistic outlook prevents it from becoming too dreary or depressing.
In fact, there is a softness to how the plot unfolds: the ordinary ins-and-outs of life find their way into the story. Yes, the whodunnit plot is THRILLING, but there is also time in the day for Abigail to find a tailor to alter a dress for the upcoming ball, and walk with her friend in the park. While most events in a suspense novel are there to drive the plot forward, in this novel, we have these quiet moments of daily life which do not (as you might suspect) serve as a distraction from the main plot, but rather add to our understanding of the time and characters. We see how these characters lead full lives outside of the tragedy that they are investigating and the ways in which this bigger picture impacts upon their choices.
Mr Lawless is a Good Dad
I realise that the bar is often set so low for fathers in fiction and media such that mediocrity is all too often applauded. We need not fear that in this case. I present two examples of Mr Lawless being a good dad.
Example, The First: he lives by a principle which toy manufacturers and clothing stores are only starting to embrace.
I was thirteen when I first accompanied Father to an inquest. He had been reluctant to allow it, but it had been a principle of his, as far as practicable, not to deny a request from his daughter that he would have granted a son.
Mr Lawless is not perfect. He tries, from time to time, to encourage Abigail’s interest in more ‘feminine’ matters, but his efforts in this regard are half-hearted at best. I present to you Fact, The Second: Mr Lawless encourages his daughter’s academic pursuits:
I slipped from the bench and held my letter out. “Can you sign this?”
“What is it?” he said, reaching for his spectacles.
“A letter to the editor of the Royal Society.”
“Your observations on the sunspots?”
“Among other things.”
Once the glasses were perched on his nose, he took the page and held it close to his face. “Abigail, did I not forbid you from writing to the Royal Society?” His lower lip protruded as he tilted the page towards the light. “After last time.”
“No, you only forbade me from forging your name.”
“Oh, yes. That was it.”
Yes, Abigail corresponds with the Royal Society and signs the letters with her father’s name in order for them to be published (which they are and which receive many fervent replies).
Abigail has a beta (male) friend
Ewan Weir is the coroner’s assistant. He is in his second year of medical school and works with Mr Lawless to gain practical experience. His most endearing characteristic? He doesn’t really want to change Abigail either.
He leaned back and regarded me, the cloth still in his fingers. “Abigail, why do you feel you must do everything alone?”
“Because no one offers help. They insist that I stay where I belong.”
He held my eye for a moment, then bowed his head and applied more iodine to the cloth. I thought of Ewan coming back to me in the Rotunda, showing me Father’s files, even here now, tending my wound, and I realised that he had done more than most would be willing; probably more than he should.
Neither Ewan nor Mr Lawless are feminist paragons and at times they slip into the formidable groove of societal expectations. Sporadically, both Ewan and Mr Lawless ask Abigail to alter her behaviour, either to keep her safe, or as a feeble attempt at making Abigail ‘conform’. These lapses are never louder than the truth of their love for Abigail and their full-hearted acceptance of her. And at times, even Abigail doubts her actions. However, she gives these doubts short shrift and we are left certain in our exaltation of her formidable spirit.
In conclusion, if you would like to disappear into another world where good prevails and strong women are admired then this is the book for you.