In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.

It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.

Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.

The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.

A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.

I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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 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.

The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait

Vanessa Tait is a new author for me, although it seems she has written one previous novel, The Looking Glass House – a book inspired by Alice in Wonderland, which sounds particularly intriguing as Tait is the great-granddaughter of ‘the real Alice’, Alice Liddell. I was drawn to her latest novel, The Pharmacist’s Wife, by the eye-catching cover and then by the promise of “A dark and thrilling tale of Victorian addiction, vengeance and self-discovery, perfect for fans of Sarah Waters, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.”

The Pharmacist’s Wife is set in Victorian Edinburgh, a setting which interested me immediately. There are so many novels set in Victorian London, it always makes a nice change to find one set somewhere else! Although I felt that the sense of place could have been strengthened by the use of more Scottish dialect, I did like the contrasting descriptions of the Old Town and the New Town.

North Bridge, the road linking Old to New, is the location Rebecca Palmer’s husband Alexander has chosen for his new pharmacy, the Grand Opening of which is celebrated with a brass band and a performing monkey. These are exciting times for Rebecca who, as a spinster of twenty-eight, had given up hope of ever marrying anyone, let alone such a clever and distinguished man as Alexander. Almost as soon as they move into their new home, however, Rebecca is forced to question whether her husband really is the man he appears to be. She suspects him of having an affair with Evangeline, a woman from the Old Town, and when she finds a ladies’ red shoe on his desk she’s sure her suspicions have been confirmed.

Alexander doesn’t like a wife who asks questions or has too many ideas of her own and, with this in mind, he has been developing a new medicine in his laboratory above the pharmacy – a medicine which he hopes can be used to control women and which he persuades Rebecca to try by telling her it will make her happy and content. Soon Rebecca is dependent on her medicine, taking it more and more often and relying on her husband to provide it for her. It is, of course, heroin – and it seems that Rebecca is not the only woman on whom Alexander has been testing his new invention…

This is certainly a dark novel but I didn’t find it a particularly thrilling one and it wasn’t until near the end that I started to feel gripped by the story. I suppose I was expecting more from the plot; there are lots of good ideas and plenty of interesting topics are touched on, but it’s only when (without wanting to spoil too much) things begin to go less smoothly for Alexander that it becomes really compelling, in my opinion. What this book does do, very well, is explore the inequalities between men and women in 19th century society. Although Alexander is not a real person and his discovery of heroin is fictitious, he uses the drug to keep his wife quiet and submissive and to take away whatever small amount of independence and freedom she may have had. Rebecca’s situation is oppressive and frightening and as her addiction to the drug deepens it becomes difficult to see how she is going to break out of the cycle in which she has found herself.

I liked Rebecca as a character and was pleased to see that she does develop as a person as the novel progresses, but I thought the villains, Alexander and his friend Mr Badcock, were too obviously ‘villainous’ and could have been given more depth. As well as the drugs, it seems that there’s no type of cruelty or depravity of which they’re not capable! Thankfully, there are two decent male characters to balance things out slightly – Lionel, the apprentice who helps Alexander in the pharmacy, and Gabriel, Rebecca’s first love.

The Pharmacist’s Wife is an interesting novel and, as I’ve said, a very dark one. I couldn’t love it, but I would be happy to read more books by Vanessa Tait. Has anyone read The Looking Glass House? What did you think of it?

Thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott

The Heart of Midlothian In 2012 I read my first Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having found Scott less difficult to read than I’d expected, I decided to add another of his books to my Classics Club list and something drew me to this one – possibly memories of the Scottish football results being announced on the television on a Saturday afternoon (Heart of Midlothian is the name of an Edinburgh team).

The novel – which predates the football team, being published in 1818 – takes its title from the Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, which was in the heart of the county of Midlothian. Scott based his plot on two real historical events: the Porteous Riots of 1736 and the story of a young woman who walked all the way to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister who had been wrongly charged with infanticide. In Scott’s version, the young woman’s name is Jeanie Deans and she lives on a dairy farm at St Leonard’s Crags with her father, Davie, a strict Cameronian (a Presbyterian faction).

Jeanie’s younger sister, Euphemia – known as Effie – is in the Tolbooth facing the death penalty, having been accused of giving birth in secret and murdering her newborn child. Jeanie is sure Effie is innocent, but with no witnesses to the pregnancy or the birth and no way to prove what happened to the baby, she is guilty in the eyes of the law. If Jeanie would only tell the court that she had known her sister was pregnant, Effie could be freed, but she is unwilling to tell a lie and instead she decides to go to London to ask Queen Caroline for a pardon. Armed with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll and some money borrowed from an admirer, the Laird of Dumbiedikes, Jeanie sets off on foot to save her sister’s life.

The first half of the novel sets the scene, describing a riot that breaks out in Edinburgh during a protest over the hanging of two smugglers. When Captain John Porteous orders the city guard to fire into the crowd, causing the deaths of several people, he himself is imprisoned in the Tolbooth. The prison is then stormed by a mob and Porteous is lynched and killed. These events become entwined with Effie’s story and provide the historical backdrop for the novel. The second half of the book concentrates on Jeanie’s journey to London, which includes encounters with some characters we previously met in Scotland: George Robertson, the father of Effie’s child; and Meg Murdockson and her mentally ill daughter, Madge Wildfire, two women who could hold the key to the mystery of the missing baby.

Well, The Heart of Midlothian was not the relatively easy read that Ivanhoe was! I found it much more challenging, for several reasons. First, as the novel is set mainly in Scotland, the dialogue is written almost entirely in Scots. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with this, but added to the fact that the book was written in the early 1800s, it did slow down the pace of my reading quite a lot. I find that whenever a book uses a large amount of dialect – even one you’re familiar with – a little more effort is required to read it and that was definitely the case here. If you think you might struggle with the dialect, I would recommend choosing an edition of the book with a good glossary!

Also, unlike Ivanhoe, which is a medieval adventure story packed with sword fights, sieges, villainous knights and feuding noblemen, this is a very different type of novel. While Jeanie’s personal story was gripping, I have to admit I had very little interest in the long passages describing the religious situation in eighteenth century Scotland and the discussions between Jeanie’s father, Davie Deans, and his neighbours on their different moral beliefs. I also thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence, with Jeanie meeting people from her own small community in Scotland hundreds of miles away in England – and I felt that the final few chapters of the book were unnecessary as the story had already reached a more natural ending point.

I did enjoy parts of The Heart of Midlothian, though. Jeanie is a strong heroine who behaves with honesty and integrity throughout the novel, and although some of her choices were frustrating, I did like her. There is a romantic interest for Jeanie too – the schoolmaster, Reuben Butler – but this only forms a small part of the story. I was also interested in the descriptions of eighteenth century life and the relationship between Scotland and England in the years following the union of 1707. And there are plenty of memorable scenes, from the storming of the Tolbooth near the beginning to Jeanie’s meeting with Queen Caroline, wife of George II, towards the end.

I certainly didn’t love this book the way I loved Ivanhoe, but I’ll still read more of Scott’s novels and will hope that the next one I pick up is more to my taste than this one was!

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn After reading Case Histories, the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels just before New Year, I was desperate to continue with the series. Luckily, I saw a copy of the second book, One Good Turn (subtitled A Jolly Murder Mystery), on the shelf on my next visit to the library so I didn’t have too long to wait!

Following the events of Case Histories, Jackson Brodie has given up his private investigating, taken his inheritance and is leading a quiet life in the French countryside. At the beginning of One Good Turn, he is visiting Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his girlfriend, Julia, is acting in a new play. On Tuesday, as he waits to enter a comedy venue, Jackson witnesses a road rage incident in which one man attacks another with a baseball bat. Jackson doesn’t want to get involved but it seems that he may have no choice.

Another bystander is crime writer Martin Canning, who intervenes by throwing his laptop at the assailant – and then begins to wish he hadn’t when he is asked to accompany the victim to hospital and stay with him overnight. They say that one good turn deserves another, but Martin’s good turn leads to a chain of bizarre incidents that could almost have come straight out of the pages of one of his own Nina Riley crime novels.

Over the next four days, a complex plot unfolds involving a fraudulent businessman, a mysterious cleaning company, a knife-wielding Russian girl, two teenage shoplifters, an unwelcome guest and an aggressive dog. Jackson can’t help being drawn into the investigations, but as the mystery deepens he finds that he has become both a victim and a suspect.

I had enjoyed Case Histories but I thought this one was even better. It was good to meet Jackson again and to see how his relationship with Julia has developed, but I also think it’s good that Jackson is only one of a large cast of eccentric, colourful characters, each of whom becomes caught up in the whirlwind of events. Atkinson puts so much detail and so much humour into her characterisation that each one feels like a real person – we can laugh at them and with them, but we can understand them and have sympathy for them as well.

In this book, we get to know Gloria Hatter, the bored and disillusioned wife of an unscrupulous businessman in trouble for fraud; police detective Louise Monroe, who is trying to investigate the case while struggling to cope with the behaviour of her teenage son; and my favourite, Martin the crime novelist, a shy, reclusive man still haunted by memories of a disastrous trip to Russia several years earlier. Martin’s Nina Riley mysteries sounded so much fun I kept wishing they really existed!

The one criticism I had of Case Histories – the fact that it dealt with three separate storylines that never really came together – was not a problem with this book, as it’s more of a conventional crime novel in that respect. Characters and events that seemed unrelated at the beginning do eventually begin to overlap and things start to fall into place (comparisons are made throughout the novel to a set of Russian dolls, with one fitting inside the other). I loved the ending too; there was a surprise on the final page that left me questioning everything I’d read about one of the characters!

Now I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, When Will There Be Good News?