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Wednesday 30 September 2015

‘The Devil’s Daughters by Diana Bretherick

Published by Orion,
27 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4091-5030-5 (TPB)

It must be a mark of quality writing when there’s a character in a book who annoys me so much that I want to slap him – so Diana Bretherick has clearly brought oddball anthropologist Cesare Lombroso to vivid and infuriating life in The Devil’s Daughters.

Her portrayal is based on the writings of the real-life Lombroso, who is widely acclaimed as the father of modern forensic science. In many ways perhaps he was, but according to Bretherick’s afterword, he also had a lot of rather eccentric ideas, especially about women.

Fortunately several other characters in this well-researched historical are a good deal more congenial. Young Scottish doctor James Murray and his sister Lucy are Lombroso’s guests at his Turin home, and become embroiled in the disappearance of a growing number of young girls in the city. Both James and Lucy set out to investigate in their own ways, and a dark picture emerges, involving prostitutes, a journalist with an eye to the main chance and finally a bizarre scheme which results in abduction, murder and mummification.

Bretherick’s great strength is atmosphere. Turin emerges as a city of contrasts: danger lurks in dark, malodorous alleys and damp ruined abbeys, while the spring sun shines on elegant piazzas and gardens. There’s romance mixed with the mystery, though it doesn’t always work out as you might hope.

James and Lucy are not the only engaging characters. The villains are nicely sinister, though perhaps a little too well signalled, and the two opposing policemen offer yet more constrast. I especially enjoyed Anna Tarnovsky, the scientist who gives the lie to all Lombroso’s misguided views on women, and Miss Trott, Lucy’s chaperone, who is clearly not quite as dowdy and tedious she appears, and eventually proves to have hidden depths.

The plot grows more and more convoluted as James Murray is drawn deeper into a mire of corruption and depravity. As it all races towards a climax, Bretherick ramps up the tension with the use of short scenes and rapid shifts from one viewpoint to another, without ever descending into confusion. All is resolved in a satisfying manner – but not without a hint of a thread left hanging to enable a follow-up. 

The Devil’s Daughters brings James Murray to 19th century Turin for a second time, following the author’s first novel, City of Devils. I’ll be interested to see where she takes him next.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Diana Bretherick is an ex-criminal barrister and now a lecturer in criminology and criminal law at Portsmouth University. She won the Good Housekeeping new novel competition in 2012.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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