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More than elementary, dear Watson

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Thrillers with heavy forensic elements date back to the earliest detective fiction. Although his work predates the term "forensic," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made use of current scientific techniques and foreshadowed future developments in his stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Conan Doyle's international success spawned many imitators, including Arthur B. Reeve, whose spate of "scientific detective" novels featured the Holmes-like professor Craig Kennedy and the rough-and-tumble agent Guy Garrick, who preferred to mix gunplay with scientific investigation.

Historical fiction is having something of a revival these days, so it's hardly surprising that mystery writers would look back to the origins of modern medicine and police science. Detectives, after all, should be faced with plenty of conflict, and there's no better source for that than the spectacle of a sound mind clashing with a set of scientific tenets that contemporary readers know to be anything but. Not only does the mystery get solved, but harsh lessons are offered about those who cling to outdated models and fail to embrace change that's literally cutting-edge.

The reader gets a vicarious thrill, accompanied by more than a hint of smugness. But at the same time, it's impossible not to wonder about the state of our own scientific "certainties," which, a century or two from now, may well turn out to have been scientific naiveté.

Holmes is invoked on the very first page of Lawrence Goldstone's "The Anatomy of Deception" (Delacorte: 342 pp., $24), which is set in the surgical theaters and medical research halls of late-19th century Philadelphia and Baltimore. Ephraim Carroll, the young resident who guides us through an increasingly complex tale of murder, body-snatching and skullduggery, explains the fascination, new then and still enduring, with the great detective's investigative skills: "[T]he remarkable methods . . . were not at all revolutionary -- they were merely a popularization of the modus operandi we employed in our quotidian efforts to alleviate human misery." Holmes' superior intelligence, in other words, affords these doctors the opportunity to match wits, a task Carroll undertakes with a mix of pleasure and terror.

Carroll works with William Osler, a famed physician who made his reputation in Montreal before moving to Philadelphia. He is intrigued when "the Professor," as he thinks of the older man, seems to falter during what should be a rudimentary dissection of a female cadaver. Is it because the dead woman's startling beauty remains even postmortem, or do the livid bruises on her arm and abdomen make even Osler blanch? Goldstone reveals the answers in somewhat leisurely fashion, moving from Philadelphia's toniest addresses to the glittery halls where opera dancers rule the day, using botched abortions, drug addictions and mysterious disappearances to help frame a deceptively simple question: Is murder ever for the greater good?

"The Anatomy of Deception" is a clever and entertaining tale, but Goldstone (who has written several nonfiction books alone and with his wife, Nancy) seems besotted with his research, dumping arcane facts willy-nilly throughout the text. Carroll is a capable detective somewhat blinded by his tendency to hesitate at inopportune moments, but he seems more a Holmes pastiche than a character in his own right. Goldstone also offers intriguing portraits of intelligent women, such as Carroll's medical colleague Mary and his bohemian-tinged love interest Abigail, but both come off more as devices to serve the complicated plot. Ironically, the most chilling character is the aging surgeon Wilberforce Burleigh, whose refusal to adapt to modern times even by wearing surgical gloves shows that surgery can be even more grotesque than homicide.

As outdated as 19th century medical practices seem, they are positively futuristic compared with what was available 700 years earlier. Adelia Aguilar, introduced last year in Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death" (Berkley: 432 pp., $15 paper), appears to be an anachronism because she lives in a time and place (12th century England) defined more by superstition and misplaced faith than logical, deductive thought of any kind. Yet in her follow-up novel, "The Serpent's Tale" (Putnam: 374 pp., $25.95), Franklin makes clear that the Italian-born Adelia is not just a product of her own moment but a forward-thinking woman who states her profession in the simplest of terms: "I find things out. It's what I do."

The novel opens with Adelia, now a mother out of wedlock, trapped in England at the behest of King Henry II, who in proto-Machiavellian fashion wants to keep her around in case anyone important is killed. Things fall into gruesome place when the king's mistress Rosamond is found poisoned, and Adelia is dispatched to the dead woman's maze-protected enclave to search for the culprit. Her investigative precision is quickly derailed with the arrival of Queen Eleanor and the maddening presence of Rowley Picot -- the king's investigator, newly crowned bishop and her baby's father. A complicated mystery turns into a political maelstrom.

Franklin slips a bit when Eleanor's mercenaries take Adelia hostage at an isolated nunnery, leaving her at the mercy of harsh elements and a bloody grab for the throne. But she brilliantly captures the heated tension between king and queen, evoking jealousy as the root of political and personal turmoil. Adelia may be smart and capable, even brilliant at times, but she cannot escape her conflicted feelings toward Rowley and chastises herself for daring to feel something akin to love. Where other writers might have made Adelia behave less like a woman than a man in drag, Franklin brings out the femininity Adelia herself would like to swaddle much as she protects her child. No doubt there will be further developments in the next book, but greater emphasis on the forensics would be welcome too.

Sarah Weinman's Dark Passages column appears monthly.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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