Book Review: Felicity Carrol and the Murderous Menace by Patricia Marcantonio
By Janet WebbFebruary 12, 2020
Before plunging into the Patricia Marcantonio’s second Victorian mystery, consider, what are the most famous unsolved crimes in history? Ding ding, Jack the Ripper: check out a short refresher on his hideous crime spree.
The sensational brutal murders of five prostitutes in London’s East End in the autumn of 1888 by an unknown killer who came to be called “Jack the Ripper” are probably the most famous unsolved crimes in history.
The five “soiled doves” were stabbed to death in Whitechapel between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, always late at night. Then, for unknown reasons, the killings stopped.
Patricia Marcantonio introduced Felicity in Felicity Carrol and the Perilous Pursuit (2012), set in 1887, the year England celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Felicity’s overbearing, rich father wanted her to “purchase” an impecunious but aristocratic spouse, “as most young ladies in their early twenties would have done.”
No thanks, said Felicity. She’s an orphan now, surrounded by the servants who raised and supported her.
She had increased wages for those who worked at her family’s businesses and started a foundation to help children in the poverty-laden East End.
But solving the unsolvable and pursuing justice were her main occupation.
Her inheritance enables her to be credible and successful. Felicity learns “from a grizzled locksmith how to get past a lock,” constructs a sophisticated crime lab in the country (like brilliant forensic pathologist Miriam fford Croft of Anne Perry’s ‘Daniel Pitt’ series), and has “the dependable solicitor firm of Morton & Morton” on retainer.
Tapping her vast financial resources to aid in her investigations, she utilized all her intelligence, scientific talents, and exceptional memory to recall anything she had read to help bring justice to those who might otherwise get none. She had so much in life, and she wanted to give to those who’d had everything taken from them by murder.
The “cases where the killer remained free” are her bête noire, like notorious Deadly Widow Bessie Denner. Police suspect Bessie of killing three husbands by arsenic poisoning to enrich herself. Months pass but Bessie is still at large. When Michael Spencer, spouse number four, dies, Felicity (camouflaged as an apple seller) decamps to Bessie’s neighborhood, assisted by Helen, her personal maid and confidant. Through observation and talking to nosy observant neighbors, she solves the conundrum that puzzled the constabulary. A snuff-taking old crone shares that Bessie “stank” of lavender and vanilla,” that Michael suffered from arthritis, and constantly rubbed ‘Simons Ointment’ into his gnarled hands.
Felicity smiled at the discovery and bid the neighbor goodbye.
“Get that murderous slut,” The old woman raised her eyebrows and took in more snuff.
Felicity tracks down the ointment and et voilà, nabs a serial poisoner: Persistence and thinking out-of-the-box for the collar.
Now what? Mrs. Joanna Davies, Scotland Yard Inspector Jackson Davies’s mother, begs Felicity to visit her son: “It is a matter of life or death.” Felicity recalls when she last saw Jackson, “he talked about the hunt for the Whitechapel killer,” saying the murderer was “insane.”
“From what I read in the Times, you don’t have to convince me,” Felicity replied.
“The way he damages the women,” He closed his eyes and grimaced, as if seeing the bodies.
Her friend is grievously ill; after the Whitechapel killings stopped, he worked the case after hours and wore himself into the ground. He took a turn for the worse after a friend sent him a clipping about the killing of a prostitute in Placer, Montana. Headline: BIZZARE KILLER STRIKES IN MINING TOWN.
Rawlins had been a prostitute and was the victim of a fiendish and revolting murder. Two wounds from ear to ear sliced her throat deep enough that her head was nearly severed from her body. Her torso also suffered foul and horrendous mutilations.
It’s the same MO: Davies is desperate to go to Montana, saying “unless we hurry, there will be more victims.” Felicity says she’ll go instead: “If your hunch is accurate and it is the Whitechapel killer, then when you have recovered, you can join me.”
Placer, Montana surprises Felicity and Helen from the moment they arrive in a stagecoach: “Horses clomped dirt. Buildings tremored.” Is it an earthquake? Nothing so exciting. According to the sheriff, it’s “a dynamite explosion” emanating from the mines. Felicity is delighted by the mores and mannerisms of the “Old West,” beginning with the handsome man with a star on his leather vest.
A lawman of the West—how exciting just to see one! She noticed how he examined the face of every man in the vicinity. He was searching for someone, and from his severe gaze, she was glad it was not her.
Sheriff Thomas Pike “uses his intuition as much as his Colt in keeping law and order in this unruly town.” Felicity and Thomas form an uneasy partnership, both determined “to find the killer in a town chock full of secrets, shadows, and suspects.” Felicity Carrol’s weapons—brains, photographic memory, knowledge of the most advanced scientific methods—are crucial in the dangerous process of identifying Jack the Ripper. After the brutal death of Rose Johnson, another soiled dove, Felicity asks Pike if Johnson’s eyeballs can be removed. Why “in heaven’s name” would she want that?
“The retina of the eye preserves the last image it sees. Using photographic processing, we can capture that image. We might see the murderer’s face.”
“The killer already tore up poor Rose Johnson. Leave her in peace. Besides, it may not work.”
“You’re the most unreasonable man on earth.”
Ultimately, intuition is no match for Felicity’s methodical yet inspired deductions.
What’s next for our talented Victorian forensic detective? Huzzah to an intriguing second entry in the Felicity Carrol Mystery series.