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Dead March: A Civil War Mystery    by Ann McMillan order for
Dead March
by Ann McMillan
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2001 (1999)

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Dead March is the very creditable debut mystery by Ann McMillan, nominated for an Agatha Best First Mystery in 2001. The story takes place in the spring of 1861 in Richmond, Virginia just as hostilities between the North and South are beginning. Although Richmond is a staunchly southern city, not everyone is convinced that war is the right course, and McMillan does a good job of showing the different points of view of the residents.

Novels depicting the U.S. Civil war, both fiction and non-fiction, are always popular with readers since this was such a pivotal and traumatic time in American history. Often historical writers are so involved with their particular time period that they spend too much time describing the background and setting and not enough time creating a good mystery. McMillan avoids this mistake. While she does include very interesting information on medical training and practice at this time and shameful details of the slave trade, both of these are key to the actual plotline.

The main characters are two strong women. There is the white gentlewoman and young widow Narcissa Powers, and the doctoress and conjurer Judah Daniel, a freed black woman. They are drawn together as Narcissa investigates the sudden death of her beloved brother Charlie, a young medical student who has died from an infection apparently caught from a corpse disinterred by resurrectionists. Although illegal, resurrectionists were often paid to obtain dead bodies for medical school anatomy labs. Sometimes it was rumored they hastened the process of death in order to procure a body. It appears that Charlie died from contact with one of these corpses, that of a young black woman supposedly a victim of childbirth fever but buried with a scarf stuck in her mouth.

McMillan has created several fine minor characters, including the British journalist Brit Wallace and Narcissa's sister-in-law (with whom she is living), the feminist Mirrie Powers. Brit Wallace has been sent to the States to provide details of the war to the London tabloids. He describes the naive Southerners at the outset of the fighting as 'well-supplied with hot blood and gold braid'. His inclusion in the story provides a good outsider's perspective. As Narcissa, Judah, Mirrie and Brit team up to investigate the deaths, one of the resurrectionists is murdered and several threats are made to Narcissa's life. The mystery proceeds nicely to a good resolution, and readers will be well-satisfied.

McMillan has selected a fascinating time and place in American history, and I predict a successful future as she refines her mystery writing skills. Since the next book in the series, Angel Trumpet, is now out, we can look forward to learning more of Narcissa's and Judah's story.

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