‘Death at the Priory’ a good story from a less-than-perfect author

Chris Chan

When I review a book, I always try to pick one that’s worth reading. Even if I find a lot of flaws in the book, there are always enough good points to justify a look by anyone, although for negatively reviewed books it’s advisable to borrow the title rather than purchase it. James Ruddick’s Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England is a very entertaining tale. It is also a severely flawed socio-historical diatribe. Ruddick has a great deal of talent for writing, but he intrudes upon his history so severely that he cripples his story.

Death at the Priory is the story of the Bravo Case, one of the most famous poisoning murders in English history. Charles Bravo, a recently married man with a reputation for being a bully, succumbed to the poison antimony (a substance with effects similar to arsenic). The primary suspect in the case was Florence Bravo, the dead man’s wife.

Prior to their marriage, Florence had carried on an affair with the charismatic Dr. Gully, a liaison that resulted in an abortion and a minor scandal. Other than Florence and the doctor, the other primary suspect was Mrs. Cox, Florence’s companion/housekeeper.

Although other servants were suspected and the possibility of suicide was never disproved, the case was never solved. Florence Bravo never overcame the shadow of scandal and suspicion, and amateur sleuths have tried to solve the mystery for a century. Several have claimed to have solved the mystery, and Ruddick is the most recent to proclaim his solution.

Ruddick goes through the history of the Bravo Case, revealing “never before uncovered” evidence. With the use of an inordinate amount of italics, he eliminates the suspects one by one until finally revealing the murderer. Or does he?

I’m not an expert on the Bravo Case, but the only other monograph I’ve read on the subject, a feminist perspective on the case, discusses a lot of clues and points that Ruddick never brings up. In addition, I’m not convinced by his logic. I found over half a dozen possible holes in his reasoning and deductions from his rather unscientific experiments.

If you’re trying to figure out whodunit, ESP is your only chance at obtaining clues. Ruddick doesn’t really play fair.

One reviewer praised the book as a true crime depiction of an Agatha Christie-style country-house murder mystery. That’s not really correct. Christie always played fair by revealing all of the clues to the reader. Ruddick, for some reason, doesn’t think it necessary to inform readers of the facts of the case until he needs to produce a point to exculpate the suspect he’s been accusing the last 12 pages.

Ruddick doesn’t want the reader to figure out whodunit; he merely wants to show off what a good researcher he is.

I can forgive a lot of these flaws, because Ruddick is a gifted storyteller. He kept me entertained, and I couldn’t put the book down. However, Ruddick spoils the story by imposing his libertine beliefs on every page.

Ruddick is less interested in indicting the murderer than in indicting the Victorian Era for prudishness. He uses Florence’s extramarital affair as justification for apotheosis, and savagely attacks all of English society for the dastardly crime of sexual “repression.”

This isn’t an attempt to portray the era as it really was; it’s Ruddick’s effort to advance his agenda against Victorian morality. Ruddick practically screams, “The Victorians expected spouses to be monogamous! REPRESSIVE VERMIN!!!!!!!!!”

I made that quote up, but after reading the book no one could accuse me of exaggeration.

There is much that is praiseworthy about the book, yet Ruddick turns what could have been an insightful look at Victorian society into an anachronistic rant on sexual mores. I wasn’t taken to the Victorian Era, but to the self-righteous cesspool that Ruddick perceived the Victorian Era to be.

Hey, I’m not attacking Ruddick for his views. I’m attacking the negative effect that Ruddick’s impositions of his opinions have upon his work.

Ruddick has a talent for words. I can only hope that he has some kind of mildly traumatic experience and develops some kind of crippling sexual hangup, for then he might be able to become a very capable historian.