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.

Summer Reading Challenge: Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Vida is a nineteen year-old girl who suffers from a heart condition. She’s in hospital waiting for a transplant – time is running out, but before Vida can get a new heart, a potential donor needs to die. That donor turns out to be car crash victim Lorrie Buckner Bailey. When Lorrie’s grieving husband, Richard, decides to visit the girl who received his wife’s heart, Vida falls in love with him. But is it really Vida herself who loves Richard – or is it Lorrie’s heart?

I really enjoyed this book. It could easily have been a slushy, sentimental romance, but it manages to avoid that. Instead, it’s a fascinating and moving story which raises an interesting question: does cellular memory (where a transplanted organ retains the memories and characteristics of its previous owner) really exist?

The story is told in the first person, alternating between Vida and Richard. Vida’s section is in the form of a journal and she has a very intimate and conversational style, making her an engaging character. Through her journal entries we learn what it’s like to have spent your whole life preparing for death and the emotions that a person goes through on discovering that they now have a chance to live after all. After meeting Vida, Richard also begins to keep a journal and his story unfolds both through his diary entries and through his email correspondence with Vida and his mother-in-law Myra. I enjoyed watching the characters develop over the course of the book as Vida learns how to enjoy life for the first time and Richard learns how to move on with his own life following Lorrie’s death.

Although Vida and Richard are the characters we get to know best, I found the minor characters equally interesting – particularly Abigail, Vida’s worried, over-protective mother, and Esther, her elderly neighbour who survived life in a concentration camp during World War II.

The style of writing used in this book, with very simplistic or incomplete sentences, would usually irritate me – and it did at times – but it was actually perfectly suited to the story and helped give the impression that Vida and Richard were talking directly to the reader via their diaries. The writing style, together with the very short chapters, makes this a quick and easy read, despite it being quite a long book. There are some detailed descriptions of heart surgery but nothing too gory for those of you who are squeamish (Catherine Ryan Hyde says in her author’s note that she was given the rare opportunity to actually observe a heart operation whilst researching this book). Whether or not you believe in the theory of cellular memory Second Hand Heart is an interesting and thought provoking story.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.