The Way of All Flesh is the first in a new historical mystery series written by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry. Brookmyre is an established crime novelist, while Haetzman is a consultant anaesthetist with a Master’s in the History of Medicine – the perfect combination when writing a crime novel set in the medical world!
It’s 1847 and young medical student Will Raven has secured a position as apprentice to the renowned Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Simpson is one of Edinburgh’s leading doctors and Raven intends to make the most of this wonderful opportunity to gain experience in the fields of midwifery and anaesthesia. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get off to the best of starts: just before he is due to begin his apprenticeship he discovers the dead body of his friend Evie, a prostitute whom he has being trying to help financially. Stumbling away through the dark streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, he is attacked by a gang sent after him by a moneylender and turns up battered and bruised for his first day at work – definitely not the impression he had hoped to give!
Settling into his work with Dr Simpson and his colleagues, Raven is required to assist at some difficult births and quickly comes to appreciate the role ether can play in easing the pain of childbirth. During his visits to other households, and in his conversations with other doctors, Raven begins to hear about other women from the Old Town who have been found dead, like Evie, under suspicious circumstances. Determined to find out what really happened to Evie, he decides to investigate…
But this is not just Raven’s story. We also meet Sarah Fisher, Dr Simpson’s housemaid. Sarah is an intelligent young woman who would love to have the opportunities that have been given to Will Raven, but as a career in medicine is not available to her because of her gender and class, she has to resign herself to reading the doctor’s medical books and helping out in his clinic as much as she can. Sarah and Will take an instant dislike to each other, but as they continue to work together – not just in the same household, but also to track down the murderer – they begin to find some common ground.
The Way of All Flesh is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested, as I am, in the history of medicine. Some of the doctors and scientists who appear in the book, including James Simpson, are real historical figures and the novel recreates some of the experiments, discoveries and research that led to the development of anaesthetics, as well as some of the challenges they faced – such as the opposition of the Scottish church leaders, who believed it was natural for women to feel pain in childbirth and that using drugs to relieve it was against the will of God. Remembering that one of the authors of this book is an anaesthetist herself, everything feels very authentic and convincing. I should warn you, though, that the descriptions of childbirth and other medical cases and operations are very detailed and occasionally a bit gruesome!
It was actually the crime element which was the least successful aspect of the book for me. I felt that it took second place to the medical procedures and scientific discussions and after a while I lost track of who had been killed and what the circumstances were; it just wasn’t the sort of mystery I prefer, where I find myself looking for clues and trying to guess who the culprit could be. The setting makes up for it, though – the descriptions of Victorian Edinburgh are wonderfully atmospheric.
Although I thought the secondary characters could have been given more depth, I did enjoy getting to know both Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. This was a promising start to a new series and I will be looking out for the second book.
This is book 13/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.