Friday, September 14, 2007

Death at the Priory and Misc.

First of all, Stephanie is having a book giveaway! Aren't they just the best? (note to self: have a book giveaway on one-year anniversary) This one is for a copy of Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald, who is signing the copy.

And speaking of book giveaways, my prize for SQT's book giveaway came in today.

Whoot! It's a short story collection based on vampires and birthdays. Yet another addition to the R.I.P. II book pool! Thanks so much SQT. If y'all haven't visited her site, it centers on sci-fi and fantasy, so it's given me a bunch of new reading ideas.

And speaking of vampires (gosh, this post is going quite smoothly), I finished The Rest Falls Away. I also have a review typed up. However, I'm kind of nervous about publishing it. I enjoyed the book, but I also had some issues with the writing style. And it seems like everyone else doesn't have a bad word to say about it, and I don't want to be a wet blanket!

And on that note, I'm going to clunkily transition into tonight's review: Death at the Priory by James Ruddick. I read this for my ongoing non-fic challenge (also known as: Eva decides to torture herself for the rest of 2007). It was a short read, ending at page 189. I chose this book mainly because of its subtitle: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. And let me tell you, there was quite a bit of the first and last of those but not so much love.

First of all, I thought that a priory was where a member of the clergy lived. Apparently not. The priory in question was owned Florence and Charles Bravo, a newly wed couple whose *cough* marital bliss was ended by the fatal poisoning of Charles. The author, Ruddick, spends the first half of the book on the background of Florence and the events surrounding Charles' death; the second is devoted to Ruddick attempting to solve the crime. As much as I wanted to enjoy this book, about a crime that Agatha Christie called "one of the most mysterious poisoning cases ever created," I just didn't.

I felt that Ruddick went in a little too much for the sensational bits of the story, and he made wild generalisations about Victorian women that weren't backed up by any footnotes. I'm beginning to realise that an easy way to tell if I'm going to enjoy a non-fiction work is the length of the bibliography and the presence of footnotes or endnotes; this one is only three pages long, and it doesn't include *any* general works about Victorian history. That absence is definitely felt throughout the book. I also felt he was rather lurid; in the middle of a discussion about the power struggle between Florence and Charles, he suddenly tells the reader that
Florence made 'grave charges' against her husband over their sexual relationship, claiming that he 'engaged in a persistant line of conduct'. The conduct, it was convincingly alleged, was an*l intercourse.
What?! I mean, I don't think of myself as a prude, but I feel that Ruddick could have found a more tactful way to introduce the topic. He also discussed it quite a bit; while I understand that he finds in it an important motive for murder, since he never tells the reader *how* the conclusion that it even took place was drawn, I found his dwelling on it pretty excessive.

The other problem I had with it centered on part two: when Ruddick decides to figure out who did it via a close examination of the evidence. From the selective way he presents the evidence and, even worse, interprets them, the reader instantly sees his bias. He often defends his assumptions by calling them 'self-evident,' when I found an equally plausible alternative that was never discussed. Let me show you what I mean. When discussing the possibility that Florence's former lover, a doctor who gave the housekeeper a mysterious bottle of poison a bit before the murder, could have done it, Ruddick examines the trial transcript of the lover's testimony.
"Did you put tartar emetic [the poison] into the bottle which you gave Mrs. Cox [the housekeeper]?"
"I had no tartar emetic to place in the bottle. And any suggestion that I did so, from whatever quarter it may come, is a wicked and infamous falsehood."
"Have you ever sed antimony, in your professional capacity?"
"Not for thirty years, not since I went to Malvern. I have not had a grain of it in my possession since 1842."
"Did you have anything to do with Mr. Bravo's death, either directly or indirectly?"
"Upon my solemn oath I declare I had nothing to do with Mr. Bravo's death, either directly or indirectly."
It was a convincing rebuke, firm and forensic.
That last sentence is Ruddick's. I didn't see anything particularly stunning in that testimony; I mean, how many guilty men on the stand are like, "Oh, now that you mention it, I did murder him!"? Ruddick then goes on to offer the definitive evidence of the doctor's innocence:
I discovered that Gully [the doctor] had founded Worcestershire's first Co-Operative Society. He also donated to the poor. He had set up medical charities. I also discovered that he had become chairman of the local council. Everywhere I looked, I found public memorials enshrining his philanthropic character. Cora Weaver, a local historian, told me that when Gully had recovered from a serious illness in 1863, the entire population of the town threw a party to celebrate, parading through the streets, and finishing with an address at his front door. Under these cirumcstances it seemed ridiculous to believe that he was behind Bravo's death.
Because someone who donates to charity is incapable of killing a man? Especially a man abusing a former lover? Really? To me, that seems quite plausible.

That kind of fallacious argumentation made reading this book quite painful; I was internally shouting at Ruddick much of the time. I can't really recommend this book, either as a portrait into Victorian life (since Ruddick didn't do his research) or as a good true crime story. However, it has inspired me to look into the case a little more, in the hopes that a better treatment of it exists.

6 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

That's too bad -- it should be a wonderful book.

heather (errantdreams) said...

Vampires and birthdays? What an interesting combination!

Thanks for the pointer to the new review site! I hadn't been there yet.

Sarah said...

I remember looking at Death at the Priory a while back and I'm bummed to see how it turns out. The case is still fascinating though. I think I might have read something about it in the book The Elements of Murder (which will get you many strange looks if you carry it onto a bus by the way...)

Eva said...

Dorothy, it ought to be, you're right! Bad Mr. Ruddick. :p

Heather, isn't it an interesting combination? I'm new to the vampire genre, and apparently this collection has a lot of authors w/ extended series and recurring characters, so I'm thinking of it as a sample!

Sarah, what's The Elements of Murder about? Your bus advice is funny-reminds me of when Bybee took Updike's Terrorist with her to an airport!

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the shout-out and also for entering my blog contest! Good luck!
Stephanie
www.thewrittenword.wordpress.com

Eva said...

Stephanie, no problem! I'm glad that you're holding the contest. :)