I love a good true crime book as much (or more) than the next gal. I also enjoy reading about Victorian England. In theory this is the sort of book I love, but the execution did nothing for me, and Ruddick’s “investigation” left a lot to be desired. Death at the Priory seeks to illuminate the 1875 poisoning of Charles Bravo. Though physicians knew he’d been poisoned, and did not lack a shortage of suspects, they were unable to pin the crime on anyone. The first portion of the book outlines the characters involved, and the crime as it unfolded. The second part of the book is where the real problems begin, but lets focus on the crime first.
Charles Bravo was the second husband of a woman called Florence Ricardo. Florence had divorced her first abusive husband, entered a sanitarium, and had an affair with her Dr. Not exactly in that order. Florence was already an infamous type woman within her neighborhood and sought to marry Bravo in an attempt to re-establish some domestic stability and return to polite society. Bravo is presented as a no good fortune hunter which might be accurate to an extent, but I doubt is entirely fair. Florence’s former lover, the good Dr. James Gully, lives just down the street, and her ladies’ companion, the shrewd Mrs. Cox also figure largely into the drama as it unfolds. One night Charles collapses and dies a painful death three days later. During that time Mrs Cox accused him of confessing a suicide attempt which he repeatedly denied, but Charles Bravo could gave no accusation as to who would want him dead. During the inquest the lurid details of Florence’s love affair with Dr. Gully, and an illegal abortion came to light, thus effectively causing Florence Ricardo to be one of Victorian England’s infamous women.
The second portion is where Ruddick unleashes his armchair detective theories. Though entertaining, and certainly another opinion about a fairly well known case… there weren’t enough primary sources to constitute actual investigative journalism. One of the points Ruddick made that I found absolutely ludicrous is that Dr. George Gull (not to be confused with James GullY, Florence’s former lover), the only Dr. who was content with the idea of suicide, was doing so because he was a Mason and Mason’s tend to look after the interests of other Masons. Florence Ricardo’s father (Dr. Gull’s friend) might have been a Mason too… seriously. That was ‘evidence’ in the book. There was also the completely laughable portion when Ruddick eliminates Dr. Gully, Florence’s former lover, because his words at the inquest ‘ring true’ despite the fact that he had an adulterous affair with his mental patient AND preformed an illegal abortion on her, Ruddick claims he was an honorable sort of man and thus could not have committed the murder. At the end of the day, this book was not a serious work that probed new insights. It was written in much the style of the sensational true crime shows, where theories are presented as facts and stack up to ‘prove’ a specific theory. All in all, true crime readers might enjoy it in passing, but it wasn’t well thought out or well written.