The Way of All Flesh
Review by Shirley Whiteside
The name Ambrose Parry may sound like that of an obscure Victorian novelist; a contemporary of Charles Dickens, perhaps. It is in fact the pen name of best-selling crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his anaesthetist wife, Marisa Haetzman, writing their first novel together. The idea grew from Haetzman’s research for a Master’s Degree in the History of Medicine, and her dissertation on the use of anaesthesia in Edinburgh Royal Maternity hospital in the 1840s. This is the first in a proposed series of novels set in Victorian Edinburgh.
It is 1847, and Will Raven is studying medicine in Edinburgh, a renowned centre of medical innovation. Financially, he struggles but things improve when he is taken on as an apprentice to Dr James Simpson, a famously brilliant obstetrician, who is searching for a more reliable and effective form of anaesthesia than ether. Raven moves into Simpson’s New Town residence and accompanies the doctor on his house calls at all hours of the night and day. Simpson treats anyone who needs his services, whether rich or poor, and runs clinics from his impressive home. Whilst the rich are conveyed upstairs, Raven sees the poor at the downstairs clinic which is organised by Sarah, the housemaid. From their first meeting, Sarah takes a dislike to Raven, not least because he is benefitting from the kind of education she longs for. She also reckons that for all his pretences, Raven isn’t on the same social level as Dr Simpson, his thin and mended clothes indicating a man of very modest means. He also has ‘a glimmer of the dark,’ which disturbs Raven as much as it does Sarah. When a number of young women are found dead around the city, their bodies agonisingly twisted, Sarah and Raven put aside their differences and set out to discover how and why these women have died.
Victorian Edinburgh is vividly depicted, from the dark, dank slums of the Old Town, to the rarefied air and elegance of the New Town. The dual nature of the city is subtly shown, Edinburgh being a great seat of learning and culture, while also being riddled with crime, hunger, and disease. There is a definite change in the city’s atmosphere when day turns to night, with danger lurking around every murky corner. The introduction of real life figures such as Dr Simpson, the legendary Edinburgh detective McLevy, and the photographic pioneers Hill and Adamson, lends the story an air of authenticity and the authors seamlessly stitch the fictional characters into this narrative frame. Duality is also present in the lives of Sarah and Mina, Dr Simpson’s unmarried sister-in-law. As an orphan from the lower classes, Sarah’s options are limited to finding a respectable job or resorting to prostitution. She has a bright, enquiring mind. When she suggests that she might become an assistant at the local pharmacy, she is told, ‘our assistants must inspire confidence in our customers. For that, only a man will do.’ Mina, meanwhile, longs for marriage and children which will give her a recognised position in society and control over her own home. As the years pass, Mina becomes increasingly despondent and wonders if her fate is to become a spinster aunt, relying on her sister and brother-in-law for everything. Both women struggle against the different limitations that society places on them.
Brookmyre’s influence can be detected in the pacing and effective characterisation, while Haetzman’s can be found in the ghastly medical scenes, from difficult, bloody births to the gory removal of a man’s putrefied arm without anaesthetic. These scenes, rooted in grim reality, illustrate why the quest to find a safe anaesthetic was so pressing. The power of the medical establishment is amply demonstrated by the unquestioning awe they inspire in their patients, even as they suffer.
This is a hefty tome of some four hundred pages but the authors sustain interest on every page and tension in every chapter. Raven and Sarah are intriguing characters. They are very different personalities but together they make a formidable team, much like the authors Brookmyre and Haetzman whose first collaboration in fiction is a resounding success.