Fresh Meat: Medium Dead by Paula Paul

Medium Dead by Paula Paul is the 4th installment in her Victorian-era cozy series about Doctor Alexandra Gladstone (available April 14, 2015).

I'll admit to having never heard of Paula Paul before picking up this charming installment of her Doctor Alexandra Gladstone series. It seems almost impossible to think that I’d never before encountered these tales of a plucky female doctor in Victorian England solving mysteries as she confronts social prejudices, as that kind of thing is squarely in my wheelhouse. Better late than never I suppose!

In this latest book, Alexandra is forced into uncomfortable encounters with nobility, primarily in the form of the spoiled mother of her neighbor and erstwhile suitor, William Forsyth, as the death of a local medium draws attention to secret visitors at William's seat at Montmarsh.

The medium, Alvina Elwold, is a colorful figure despite appearing in only a handful of scenes before her death. Ms. Paul has a talent for sketching a satisfying portrait of her characters in only a few lines, such as in this depiction of Alvina:

A necromancer, some say, should be able to call up spirits of the dead from anywhere. However, Alvina Elwold always insisted that her clients come to her cottage on St. James Lane. The little house in the Essex coastal village of Newton-upon-Sea was small and dingy, but it was where Alvina did her best work.

She disliked the term necromancer anyway. She preferred spiritualist instead. The man who came down to St. James Lane from Montmarsh had the gall to refer to her as a medium, which was even more distasteful to Alvina. In her mind, she was medium at nothing. She was the best money could buy.

Alvina's unfortunate demise soon has Newton-upon-Sea in an uproar, as confessions are made but disbelieved, not just by the loved ones of the confessed perpetrator, but by the local constable himself. Cover-ups and confusion reign, leading Nancy, Alexandra's maid (and confidante and assistant) to ponder whether the only way to successfully identify the real murderer would be through asking the dead woman herself.

“A seance?” [their friend] asked. “Who’s going to have a seance?”

“No one,” Alexandra said.

“We are,” Nancy said in almost the same instant.

The two women stared at each other a several seconds. “You wouldn’t forbid me, would you, Miss Alex?” Nancy said finally.

“I very well may,” Alexandra said in response to what, to her, sounded like a dare.

Nancy’s retort came quick. “'Twould be no harm. A bit of innocent fun, I'd say.”

Alexandra took a breath, ready to protest with more force, but before the words were out of her mouth, she felt her resolve weakening. “If word got out that I allowed such a thing in my house… I’m a woman of science. I can’t afford—”

“Word would not get out, and if it does, you can blame it on your maid, who doesn’t have the burden of a scientific reputation,” Nancy said.

Medium Dead delves into the Victorian obsessions with mysticism and nobility, and presents us with an authentic look at how the two might have converged in a sleepy British seaside town. I won’t lie: part of the appeal of this novel for me was the hinted appearance of Queen Victoria herself, whose involvement in Alvina’s murder adds a layer of complexity to the proceedings. In traditional cozy fashion, though, the mystery is wrapped up as tidily and satisfactorily as a brown paper parcel in the end.

What really made the book stand out for me, however, were the relationships and characterizations, as illustrated above. William’s gentle courtship of Alexandra, as well as Alexandra’s genuinely affectionate relationships with the people of her own household, were really showcased by Paula Paul’s writing here. With a dash of social justice and proto-feminism, Medium Dead is the mystery novel equivalent of a fresh cup of hot tea: fortifying and delightful.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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