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Book Author: Ritu Mukerji

MURDER BY DEGREES by Ritu Mukerji: Book Review

It’s 1875, 25 years after the founding of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, but there is still a great deal of opposition to the idea of women physicians.  Too radical, not a fit job for a woman, a woman should be home taking care of her husband and children–these are the remarks that could be heard whenever the College is discussed.

Dr. Lydia Weston, professor and anatomist, has learned to ignore such comments and go about healing the women who arrive at the hospital.  As much as she wants to carry on with her work in a professional manner to everyone she encounters, she cannot help relating to some of the young women more than others who attend her free lectures at the Spruce Street Clinic.

One of her favorites is a young housemaid, Anna Ward, who listens eagerly to Lydia’s talks on the importance of nutrition and hygiene and is also quite interested in literature, even borrowing some of Lydia’s books.  Now it’s been two weeks since Anna has come to a lecture, and Lydia is beginning to get worried.  Then the corpse of a young woman is found on a path next to the river, and Anna’s sister identifies it as her sibling.  

It looks like a case of suicide, but Lydia is troubled by the thought that Anna would have taken her own life, thinking it would have been so unlike the young woman she knew and liked and who was the sole support of her sister and her young disabled nephew.  She joins with Sergeant Charles Davies and Inspector Thomas Volcker of the Philadelphia police force, trying to make sense of Anna’s death.

The policemen and Lydia have gone to the Curtis home where Anna was employed, and although Mr. Curtis and Mrs. Burt, the mansion’s housekeeper, voice the appropriate sympathy, they appear rather unmoved by Anna’s death.  Then, talking to the servant who was closest to the deceased, Lydia learns that Anna had been seeing someone who had been giving her expensive gifts, gifts that she could never have afforded on her own.  “I can tell you,” Sally tells Lydia, “he was not like us…(he was) a gentleman.”

Murder By Degrees is a fascinating look into a society 150 years in the past but with secrets that are similar to our own.  The strength of Lydia Watson regarding the prejudices she faces, her determination to have women physicians recognized for their achievements, and her wish to better the lives of young working women is inspiring and not that different from situations that many working women face today.  Ritu Mukerji has written what I hope is the first in a series of mysteries featuring a strong, intrepid, and intelligent woman.

You can read more about the author at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.