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Doctor Death: A Madeleine Karno Mystery


Doctor Death: A Madeleine Karno Mystery

I was initially tugged toward and simultaneously pushed away from DOCTOR DEATH, written by Lene Kaaberbøl and wonderfully translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard. The “tugged toward” part of the equation was due to my familiarity with Kaaberbøl’s collaborative efforts with Agnete Friis on the Nina Borg series, particularly THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE, which remains a contemporary favorite of mine. The “pushed away” part occurred when I learned that DOCTOR DEATH falls within the “historical mystery” genre. While I enjoy those titles on occasion, they are not ones that I reflexively reach for, a shortcoming that should be laid wholly at my door, as opposed to the books and the authors who labor to create them.

I am pleased to report, for whatever it’s worth, that the “pulled away” feeling vanished while reading the first paragraph of the book, which I found to be a one-sit read and made me a confirmed, and impatient, fan of what I hope will be a long-running series.

The focus of DOCTOR DEATH is 20-year-old Madeleine Karno, the daughter of Dr. Albert Karno. The story is set in Varbourg, France, in the late 19th century. Dr. Karno is a groundbreaking physician of sorts, a practitioner in the art of forensic medicine. The fact that he examines dead bodies does not do wonders for his medical practice among the living. Of even greater import is that he quietly utilizes Madeleine as his assistant.

"I found [DOCTOR DEATH] to be a one-sit read and made me a confirmed, and impatient, fan of what I hope will be a long-running series."

As the book begins, another young woman fares far worse than Madeleine. The dead body of Cecile Montaine is discovered in the doorway of her home late one night by her brother. She has been missing from school for a week, and had been thought to have run off with a boyfriend. Though (other than for being dead) she appears somewhat the worse for wear, it appears that Cecile has died of natural causes. Oddly enough, her family will not permit Dr. Karno to perform an autopsy. Still, he and Madeleine are able to conduct a surreptitious examination of the body and discover odd bite marks on the corpse, as well as some strange mites in her mouth and nasal cavities.

Even before the unusual arachnids can be identified, another death occurs, and this one --- the victim being someone associated with Cecile’s funeral --- is obviously a murder. Dr. Karno is eager to examine the corpse, but before he can do so, it goes missing in an extremely dramatic fashion. In the aftermath, Cecile --- who chafes at the conventions that make it unseemly for her to engage in medicine, her major interest --- is given by fate and an unexpected ally the opportunity to unofficially investigate not one murder but an entire series of them, and to ultimately determine not only the “how” behind them, but also the “who” and the “why.”

DOCTOR DEATH was originally published in Denmark in 2010, and at least one other book in the series has been released since then. Hopefully we will see it, and much more of Karno’s life and times, on this side of the world in short order. The novel puts me in the mind of a Nancy Drew series for adults, one set in the distant past and a faraway place. And I say that as the highest possible compliment. If you read those books in your younger days and miss them but don’t read mysteries anymore, please make an exception for DOCTOR DEATH. And if you do read mysteries, you probably are already familiar with Kaaberbøl’s magic, which she works yet again.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 27, 2015

Doctor Death: A Madeleine Karno Mystery
by Lene Kaaberbol