Sunday, April 16, 2017

Stroke of Death

Stroke of Death (aka Such a Nice Client, 1977) by Josephine Bell is a rather squalid tale of the death of an elderly gentleman. It's far more an examination of the evil that men (and women) do than a real whodunit. In fact, there isn't much question at all whodunit or when or why. The real question is--Is anybody going to catch up to this villain? Because as one social worker puts it. "[S/He] was such a nice client" (thus giving us the original title) and nobody official seems to be seeing this person as a real villain. 

Old Mr. Lawrence is visited regularly at his home by various medical professionals to check on his progress after a stroke leaves him paralyzed on his right side and without the power of speech. His daughter-in-law is his primary caregiver--with his son Jim all-too-absent. When Lucy Summers is assigned to him for physiotherapy and first observes her patient (before he sees her), she becomes convinced that the old gentleman is being starved to death.

Just then a blackbird appeared on the hedge. In its beak, held insecurely because of its size, there hung a large crust of bread....Mr Lawrence watched, the trembling left hand moving very slowly upward and out towards the table....The blackbird, hovering uncertainly over the hedge, could hold its heavy burden no longer. It dropped its prize on the centre of the table. Mr. Lawrence's hand swept across and across....The shaking hand closed on the bread, was drawn back and with eager clumsy speed crammed the prize into the lop-sized mouth, already open to receive it.

Mr. Lawrence eats the crust of bread so greedily that Lucy is sure he hasn't had anything to eat all day. Possibly for days. She enlists the aid of Dr. Geoff Harris to investigate but all sorts of official miscues and dropped balls happen. And before any decisions can be made, the daughter-in-law takes Mr. Lawrence to the seaside "for a change in air." He dies in a drowning "accident" when his wheelchair slides off a pier. Things get very interesting when Jim Lawrence, the only son, arrives from Canada to find his father dead and the woman who was in reality Mr. Lawrence's second, much younger wife trying to claim inheritance rights. Jim is convinced that Dorothy Lawrence killed his father for what she thought she would inherit from him--at least the old gentleman still had enough of his senses left to will everything to his son--and he is determined to prove it. Detective Chief Inspector Bartlett is also convinced that murder has been committed, but he's more concerned with the unidentified body which is discovered in the Lawrence's basement.

Generally speaking I enjoy Josephine Bell mysteries--when they really are mysteries. This one I just found to be terribly depressing. I find it hard to believe that a social worker would allow "such a nice client" to so thoroughly pull the wool over her eyes that even when presented with evidence at the end she still can't believe that "poor suffering little woman" killed for personal gain. And I would like to believe that health professionals would be a little more observant and realize that Mr. Lawrence was starving a heck of a lot sooner. That a doctor and a nurse could miss the signs and a physical therapist didn't is staggering. 

Without a true mystery to solve, this just isn't up to Bell's usual standards. The reader feels very sorry for Mr. Lawrence and wants his son Jim to get justice for his father, but there really aren't any characters that one makes a connection with. The sub-plot romance between Lucy Summers and Dr. Geoff Harris, who do a bit of sleuthing on the side as well, doesn't even add much in the way of character interest. If, however, you are interested in the character study of a truly self-absorbed woman who doesn't mind who she sweeps out of her way (permanently), then this might be a book for you. ★★

[finished on 4/12/17]
This fulfills the "Death by Drowning" category on the Mystery Reporter Challenge as well as serving as my first entry for Rich's 1977 edition of the Crimes of the Century meme.

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