This is the second in a historical fiction crime series set in the Victorian Era in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1849. In the previous book, The Way of All Flesh, which took place two years earlier, Will Raven, at age 19, was newly apprenticed to the eminent physician James Simpson (an actual figure from real life), who specialized in gynecology, or as it was known then, midwifery. Simpson was also famous for his discovery of chloroform which transformed surgical practice at the time.
Now Will is a doctor, having spent time abroad studying at top medical schools on the continent, and Dr. Simpson has offered him the position of his new assistant. When he returns, he is both astonished and dismayed to find out that Sarah, a former housemaid to Dr. Simpson, was now married and also serving as an assistant for Dr. Simpson’s clinic. Before Raven left, he and Sarah had something of a relationship, but Raven, bound by ideas of “propriety” believed there could be no future with a housemaid, and had not even contacted Sarah since he left. He could not forget her, however, and found that his feelings for Sarah, now Mrs. Banks, had not diminished. Shockingly, to Raven’s mind, Sarah’s husband Archie was a doctor but cared little for social opinion over his relationship with Sarah. He had told her, “Life is too short to be held back from pursuing one’s wishes by something as vapid as what other people might think.” In this he was the opposite of Will Raven.
When Raven returns, Sarah tries to enlist his help to redeem Dr. Simpson’s reputation after one of his patient’s died unexpectedly. In fact, there are a number of unexpected deaths occurring, and the narration alternates with a woman who is a killer, and whose identity we only learn late into the story.
At first Raven resists Sarah’s entreaties; he is still overly concerned with his own reputation. Other complications weave through the plot: So much about the human body was still a mystery and perplexing those who dedicated their lives to healing; Raven was still involved with a loan shark who retained power over him; there was money going missing from Dr. Simpson’s household; something was wrong with Sarah’s husband; and Raven was struggling with being in such close proximity with Sarah.
By the time Raven finally joins Sarah in trying to get to the bottom of what is killing patients, and finally lets his reason temper his ego in determining the cause, it may be too late for all of them, for they are all in danger.
The authors conclude with a Historical Note, in which they state that many of the characters and incidents depicted are based on real events and real people, and they provide examples.
Discussion: It should be noted that Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym for the married couple Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Brookmyre has written over twenty novels for which he has won a number of awards, and Dr. Haetzman is a consultant anesthetist. The information provided on the authors explained that Dr. Haetzman uncovered the material for this novel while doing research for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
This book was shortlisted for the 2019 McIlvanney Prize (Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year) and longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year (one of the UK’s top crime-fiction awards).
Evaluation: Although there were two authors writing this novel (see Discussion, above), the writing was seamless. The Edinburgh setting appealed to me, as well as the evolution of the main characters. There were a number of twists, and the ending caught me by surprise.
Published in the U.K. by Canongate Books, 20189