Book review: An Oxford Tragedy by Norman Russell

How about a good, old-fashioned detective story to while away those long summer evenings?
An Oxford Tragedy by Norman RussellAn Oxford Tragedy by Norman Russell
An Oxford Tragedy by Norman Russell

Lancashire-born Norman Russell, author of a string of intriguing Victorian mysteries, whisks us away to the dreaming spires of Oxford in 1894 where the death of the popular warden of a university college stirs up a hornet’s nest of simmering resentments.

And when a post mortem examination reveals that Sir Montague Fowler died from a highly toxic poison, the list of murder suspects starts to grow with alarming speed.

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It appears at first that 62-year-old Sir Montague, warden of St Michael’s College, Oxford, has died from food poisoning but the vicious rumours appear to be correct when an autopsy reveals his body was full of the deadly poison mercuric chloride.

Detective Inspector James Antrobus of the Oxford city police, with his belligerent Sergeant Joe Maxwell in tow, is called in to investigate and soon has a list of suspects, not least Sir Montague’s three children who would benefit most from his death.

They are all in desperate need of money and each is embroiled in a scandal. Eldest son John, a commodity broker, is a secret gambler with enormous debts, and ruthless loan sharks have recently been circling.

Daughter Frances, headmistress of her own school for girls, cannot pay the rent and is in danger of losing her establishment. And even worse, her unconventional private life has led her into the clutches of a blackmailer.

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Younger son Timothy lives in genteel poverty as a country parson and has a shameful secret in his past. A large inheritance would allow him to buy the freehold of his parish and future security for himself and his pretty, clinging wife Kate.

Aided by the pioneering London physician, Sophia Jex-Blake, Detective Antrobus sets about unravelling the truth behind this Oxford tragedy…

Russell, an elegant writer with a keen, intelligent eye for detective work and authentic detail, serves up a compelling concoction of history, mystery and skulduggery.

Superb characterisation, including a fascinating fictional role for Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the UK’s first women doctors, adds an exciting twist to a story brimming with dark secrets and malevolent schemers.

And expect the unexpected right up to the last page…

(Hale, hardback, £19.99)