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BookBrowse Reviews Murder by Degrees by Ritu Mukerji

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Murder by Degrees

A Mystery

by Ritu Mukerji

Murder by Degrees by Ritu Mukerji X
Murder by Degrees by Ritu Mukerji
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  • Published:
    Oct 2023, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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A rich evocation of life for a pioneering woman doctor in 19th-century Philadelphia who finds herself drawn into a complex murder case.

Lydia Weston is among the first wave of female physicians and professors in the United States. Dedicated to her work, she spends her days treating the sick and teaching the next generation of young doctors at Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. Her routine is thrown into chaos, however, when the body of her patient and would-be friend, Anna Ward, is pulled from the river. Having somewhat taken Anna under her wing — introducing her to the wonders of literature and encouraging her desire to pursue education — Lydia feels a strong personal stake in the mystery of her death.

Though initial clues point to suicide, Lydia's expert autopsy skills uncover hints of foul play, sparking a murder investigation that will soon expose an intricate web of secrets and lies with implications that ripple throughout the wider community of Philadelphia. Determined to uncover the truth and gain justice for Anna, Lydia works closely with the police on the case despite the personal risk this brings. All the while, she fends off the sexism of patients and fellow doctors alike as she strives to prove herself a qualified and capable physician.

Two major threads run parallel through the entirety of Murder by Degrees: Lydia's day-to-day experiences as a woman doctor, as she is forced to continuously demonstrate her worth regardless of her clear qualifications and skill; and the mystery surrounding Anna's death. It would be easy for one to steal focus and the other to feel like an afterthought, but author Ritu Mukerji pays equal attention to each. As a result, both are developed and intriguing enough to stand on their own, but woven together, they form an even more captivating narrative that paints a vivid picture of reality for women in the 1800s.

Various revelations related to exploitation in Anna's love life and employment soon reveal the influence of class, scandal, and reputation at the time. This rapid succession of twists regarding the nature of her life and death ramps up the pace in the book's latter half. Prior to this, the plot is perhaps a little slower than many would expect of a mystery, but this is ultimately to the book's credit. By allowing herself time to firmly establish her characters and their world before the action dials up a gear, Mukerji ensures we feel invested in their fate, intensifying the tension leading to the eventual climax.

Throughout it all, Lydia is a vibrant and charismatic heroine who feels well-positioned to lead her own potential series of mysteries moving forward. Her compassion and intellect in the face of very real struggles are a throughline that keeps the narrative grounded. This prevents the novel from ever veering into melodrama, even in its most exciting and theatrical moments.

There is equal appeal here for those who love portraits of social history and those who enjoy trying to stay one step ahead of an unraveling mystery. Striking a unique balance between the grittiness and atmosphere of noir fiction and the page-turning charm of cozy crime, Murder by Degrees marks the debut of an exciting new literary voice.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review first ran in the November 15, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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