A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical mystery series featuring Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. The first two are The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying, but if you haven’t read either of those it shouldn’t be a problem – although I would still recommend reading them in order if possible so that you can understand the background of the relationship between Will and Sarah.

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman; Brookmyre is an experienced crime novelist while Haetzman is an anaesthetist and medical historian, which explains why the 19th century world of murder and medicine portrayed in the books feels so real and convincing.

At the beginning of A Corruption of Blood, Sarah travels to Paris and Gräfenberg hoping for a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in America and become a doctor. Sarah has an interest in medicine herself and is sure that she could achieve the same as Dr Blackwell if given the chance, but things don’t go as planned and Sarah goes back to Edinburgh feeling disillusioned and frustrated. On returning home, she receives more bad news when she learns that Dr Will Raven has just become engaged to another woman, Eugenie Todd. Sarah has always resented Will for being able to take advantage of the opportunities that have been denied to her because of her gender, but recently they have been on friendlier terms and she is disappointed to hear of his engagement.

Meanwhile, Will is having problems of his own. Through his work with the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson, he has become used to witnessing the trauma of childbirth and, sadly, the deaths of children – however, even he is not prepared for the sight of a dead baby wrapped in a parcel being fished out of the river. Soon after this, Will’s new fiancée asks for his help; her friend Gideon has been accused of murdering his father, Sir Ainsley Douglas, and she wants to prove that he is innocent. Will knows and dislikes Gideon from his student days, but agrees to investigate. Could both deaths somehow be connected?

This is such an interesting series, not so much because of the murder mystery aspect (which I don’t think is particularly strong) but because of the Victorian Edinburgh setting and all of the information we are given on the medical science of the period, as well as the challenges faced by women like Sarah and Dr Blackwell who wanted to make a career for themselves in a field dominated by men. This particular novel also includes a storyline involving the unpleasant, distressing but sadly quite common practice of baby farming, where unwanted or illegitimate children were sold to a ‘baby farmer’, who in theory would look after the child in return for a payment, although it was often more profitable for the baby farmer if the child conveniently died while in her care.

It took me a while to get into this book; the pace is very slow at the beginning and it takes a while for the plot to take shape and the different threads of the story to start coming together. Things improve in the second half, though, and there are a few surprises and plot twists that I hadn’t really expected. The relationship between Sarah and Will continues to develop, with the way each of them feels about Eugenie adding some extra interest, and I will look forward to seeing how this progresses in the next book. I hope there is going to be a next book and I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it!

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Book 39/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

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.