The peculiar Victorian fascination with all aspects of death
causes an undertaker to ponder the good and bad features of safety coffins.
Undertaker Violet Harper does not use safety coffins herself, but her interest in them is sparked by an incident en route to a funeral at suburban Brookwood Cemetery on the London Necropolis Railway. As she waits on the platform for the arrival of the coffin for the funeral she is to supervise, she hears a safety bell suddenly ring on one of the coffins. Opening it discloses a confused but clearly living man who’s quickly taken away by a physician who has offices nearby. Violet is shocked, but when the same thing happens a second time, she grows suspicious, and when a young woman becomes hysterical upon the arrival at Brookwood of another safety coffin containing her fiance’s body—a body not prepared in any way for burial—Violet undertakes a sleuthing expedition among London undertakers with the help of her newlywed daughter, Susanna, who’s visiting from Colorado with her husband, Ben. She meets varying degrees of cooperation and hostility, and Susanna meets with worse: She’s attacked as the family walks home in the dark from a circus performance. So Violet goes to Scotland Yard to talk to DCI Hurst (A Virtuous Death, 2014, etc.), who agrees to look into her story even though he’s not much interested in it. Every time Violet thinks she’s found a solution, her theory turns out to have some flaw. All the while, her determination to find the truth puts her in grave danger.
The pace is glacial, despite, or perhaps because of, the extensive and interesting exploration of Victorian mourning practices.