The Anatomist’s Wife is a period mystery semi-romance novel set in 1830, Scotland. The writing was all right, wasn’t tedious, though can sometimes be bogged down by superfluous descriptions or scenes that I scanned through and skipped over. The style of the narrative and dialogue were not particularly true to the era (I wouldn’t expect most contemporary novelists to be able to pull that off anyway). In a sense, I was almost thankful that Huber didn’t even try that hard to make the language more fitting for the time the story was set in. From what I’ve read so far, contemporary novelists who attempt that tend to fall flat on their faces and make it that much harder for me to digest the story. The characters were generally believable, most of them were not extremely in-depth or versatile, but they worked for what they were meant for. What’s more important was the mystery! It kept true to its word, with the plot firmly centering around the mystery instead of sidelining it in favour of pursuing romantic subplots which some novels may do. The mystery itself, though not difficult (I guessed the solution at around 45% of the book, though it might have to do with me reading so much Agatha Christie recently), was at least intriguing and engaging enough to press me forward to finish the novel.
Lady Keira Darby is a painter, lives for painting and – shock shock horror horror – has no interest in men or romance! She entrusted her future partner to her father, who matched her up with Sir Anthony Darby, a famous anatomist. Sir Anthony really only bothered marrying her for her artistic talent, because he needed someone to help him illustrate his dissections and was too stingy to hire one. As such, Lady Darby was subjected to the shocking sights of cadavers in mid-autopsy, and the horrors of the dissection room, things that were absolutely taboo for women to have anything to do with. In fact, just the thought of murder was vulgar to women, much less anything else to do beyond death. Sir Anthony apparently didn’t care two hoots about Lady Darby, and died soon after, leaving his wife in ignominy as it is uncovered by his former colleagues that she had been assisting him in his anatomical sketches. Lady Darby’s reputation in high society is ruined, and she retires to her sister, Alana, Countess Cromarty’s seat, Gairloch Castle in Scotland.
Reticent and antisocial, Lady Darby wills herself to endure a house full of guests for her brother-in-law’s sake, though most of them whisper spiteful comments about her unnatural disposition behind her back. She avoids them as much as possible, being sure that none of them miss the pleasure of her company anyway. On a fateful day, she hears a scream from within the garden maze and goes to investigate. It had been a Lady Lydia who screamed, and had fainted in the arms of her male companion. They had just discovered a body, that of a fellow guest at Gairloch Castle, Lady Godwin.
It is abundantly clear that Lady Godwin had been brutally murdered, judging by the amount of blood on her dress and the gash on her neck. Servants are dispatched to fetch the magistrate, but by some legal procedure that could be either invented by Huber or one that I’m unaware of, it would’ve taken the magistrate at least 4 days to arrive at the Castle. In the meantime, Philip, Count Cromarty, engages the services of Mr. Sebastian Gage, yet another fellow guest in the house, to investigate the murder as his father is a celebrated investigative agent. Lady Darby has her misgivings about Mr. Gage, with his reputation as a rake in society, but is then privately asked by Philip to assist Gage in his investigations. Not wanting to disappoint her brother-in-law, and also wanting to restore the safety and security of Gairloch Castle for her sister, and clear her own name which had been unofficially smeared by the vile gossips running around the guests, Lady Darby agrees.
The crux of this novel is supposed to be how Lady Darby uses her experiences as an anatomist’s assistant to clear her name. However, there is only one murder in the entire story, and Lady Darby only sees the dead body once, and makes some pretty superficial deductions from it. The rest of the novel runs like any other murder mystery, uncovering clues and discovering what lies people have been telling. As the novel progresses, she deduces that: 1) Lady Godwin had been killed by a slit along the throat (I guess since there’s a gaping gash at the throat, that’s fairly obvious); 2) Lady Godwin had been struck along the eye shortly after death (because there was a bruise… At first, Lady Darby and Mr. Gage wonder if the murderer had a strong aggression towards Lady Godwin to have wanted to punch her in the eye after killing her, but Lady Darby later connects the kohl make-up on Lady Godwin’s eyes with a similar black smudge found along the garden bench where her body was discovered, realising then that the bruise was caused by her body falling forward after her throat had been slit. Plausible, but not an impressive deduction); 3) Lady Godwin was expecting, and her baby was taken from her womb after she was killed (this was treated as the crowning glory of Lady Darby’s deductions, though – seriously – anyone who was going to examine the body would’ve come to that conclusion any way, owing to a T-shaped jagged gash around her pelvic area, and a severed umbilical cord that Lady Darby spotted. It really wouldn’t have taken much); 4) A different weapon was used to slit her throat, and then to open her womb (this could’ve been an important point and pointed to more than one person involved in this murder, but since Lady Darby could not give any firm answers as to whether certain potential murder weapons found had actually been the murder weapon. I get that she’s not an experienced investigator, but still… unimpressive).
I would say the gimmick about her being an anatomist’s wife (or ex-wife, since the anatomist in question is dead) is mostly intended to give her a reason to be that shunned, mysterious beauty with torment and suffering in her past. She really doesn’t use much anatomical knowledge throughout the entire novel to solve anything. It is possible that Huber isn’t versed in anatomy herself, and didn’t want to flounder with inaccurate information, opting instead to veer away from the subject all together. Personally, I think this was a good move. If Huber had managed the put in the anatomical bit well, it would’ve been the crowning glory of the book. However, if she had not been confident of being able to do it well, I would rather not have read any of it and taken the story simply as a murder mystery, instead of enduring ill-informed and inaccurate anatomical knowledge and information.
The little romantic tension between Mr. Gage and Lady Darby, I could smell from a mile off. I knew it from the blurb already. There were plenty of cliches in this book, with Lady Darby being sexually pursued by a rogue, Lord Marsdale, and a rake, Mr. Gage. I wasn’t sure what Lord Marsdale’s pursuit of her was for, since nothing happened between them and he didn’t add much to the plot besides being a suspect himself (though quickly cleared from the crime), making Mr. Gage jealous. Thankfully, the cliches were kept to tolerable levels and I didn’t feel too bothered by them. I would’ve indeed rolled my eyes if there had been an irrelevant sex scene in there somewhere, but there wasn’t. Mr. Gage, in fact, went away after the investigation after a poignant meeting with Lady Darby (electric eye contact!) at the end.
(Speaking of electric eye contact, I remember reading a Goodreads reviewer say that he lost it after how Lady Darby described her hair as “my chestnut tresses” twice in two different chapters.)
This was an OK book. I finished it within a night because I wanted to know if there might be any plot twists, and whether my guess at the solution was right. I scanned and skipped lots of passages in the second half as long as I was sure there wasn’t anything relating to the murder happening (mostly to do with how everyone was victimizing Lady Darby and the increasing attraction between herself and Mr. Gage). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly good either. I sympathized a bit with Lady Darby when she was being openly attacked by the other women in the house, but I didn’t develop much attachment to her or any of the other characters. I may or may not pick up another Lady Darby novel in the future.