The recent paperback release of Louise Levene's superb Ghastly Business slipped past me, and in case you missed it too, or haven't come across the book before, here's my post on what was one of my top favourites last year:
The novel is set in London in 1929 when young Dora Strang, denied the chance of becoming a doctor by her Harley Street physician father who considers medicine an unsuitable career for a woman, and - it must be said - by a lack of ability on her part, takes a job as secretary to the eminent pathologist Dr. Alfred Kemble. As she types up the notes of his post mortem findings, sits in on his morbid anatomy lectures and assists with his forensic enquiries, she finds her strong stomach and all her early reading of her father's medical textbooks standing her in good stead. She's resourceful, professional, and having won the school cup for "Good Manners under Difficult Circumstances", is rarely thrown by the somewhat peculiar nature of the work she is called upon to do.
Kemble himself is quite the boss. The Big White Chief of the hospital, he is something of a celebrity as far as the newspapers are concerned as his appearances as expert witness in so many murder trials have raised his profile far beyond the laboratory. He is dashing, handsome, distinguished, and having a rather unconventional bedside manner, shall we say, is an embodiment of Dora's colourful fantasies, but when even his wife describes him as "ghastly", this cannot bode well.
If you don't mind the fairly grisly subject-matter (you'll learn a lot about 1920s medical procedures here) then there is much to love about this book. It's stylish, witty, written with brio, and there are so many good lines which show off Louise Levene's flair for a well-turned phrase or a gimlet-eyed observation, while characters, even minor ones, are pinned to the page in mercilessly exact fashion, rather like butterflies preserved in a specimen drawer. In addition, there's the research - beautifully placed detail setting the book firmly in time and place and social milieu (a very strong feature of Louise's earlier novel A Vision of Loveliness, too), so all in all it's a seamless, perfectly paced piece of work, highly accomplished and great fun.