Posted in Book Reviews

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – Herald Review

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Ambrose Parry

Canongate, £14.99

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.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Bloody January and I’ll Keep You Safe – Herald Reviews

Bloody January

Alan Parks

Canongate, £12.99

I’ll Keep You Safe

Peter May

Quercus, £18.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

TARTAN Noir may be a useful marketing term that helps sell Scotland’s many crime writers to the world but it fails to show how varied their books are. Two new novels give a flavour of the stylistic diversity being produced.

Bloody January, a gripping debut novel by Alan Parks, is set in Glasgow in the first few weeks of January, 1973. When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead before turning the gun on himself, it is left to dishevelled Detective Harry McCoy to find out why. With Wattie, his new sidekick in tow, he is determined to find out why two teenagers died in such a shocking way. Was it a random killing by a boy high on drugs or was the girl a planned target? McCoy’s Glasgow is a dark, brooding city, where the line between the police and the underworld is frequently blurred. He uses drugs to keep himself awake during long shifts, and relaxes with a joint with Janey, a prostitute, when his work is over. Parks peppers the dialogue with industrial strength swearing but it never feels gratuitous, being perfectly in keeping with the patter of the various characters he has created. McCoy haunts some of Glasgow’s grubbier corners, from down-at-heel pubs to greasy cafes and dangerously derelict buildings hiding lucrative criminal enterprises. He goes to Paddy’s Market looking for an informant, and Parks takes the opportunity to explain the history and hierarchy of the market, with better goods being sold under the bridge away from the worst of the weather. This kind of insider knowledge grounds the story firmly in the Glasgow of yesteryear, long before it became miles better and a cultural hot spot. McCoy’s investigations lead him to the Dunlop family, one of the richest and best connected families in the city. Their public face is one of sober respectability but behind the scenes they are corrupt and ruthless. Warned to stay aware from the family, he is determined to do whatever it takes to solve the murder-suicide of two young people. McCoy joins a distinguished cadre of hard-boiled detectives, loners who prefer to do things their own way, and he is an intriguing addition to the canon.

Peter May returns to the Hebrides for his latest tale which features husband and wife, Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane. The Macfarlanes are in Paris to promote their unique cloth, Ranish Tweed, a lighter and more colourful version of Harris Tweed. Niamh receives an anonymous email saying that her husband is having an affair, which seems to explain the recent tension between them. Shortly afterwards, she witnesses the car Ruairidh is travelling in explode. Still in shock, she is questioned by Parisian police and realises that they suspect she might have had something to do with her husband’s death. Eventually she is allowed to return home and takes her husband’s remains, stored in a coffin meant for a premature baby, back to Lewis. Back home she has to negotiate family politics when all she wants to do is grieve for her husband.

The present day story is told in the third person, whereas Niamh relates the story of her relationship with Ruairidh and the growth of their business. This works well and offers essential background information about the couple from Niamh’s point of view. As a young child Niamh had fallen into a bog and was in danger of being sucked under. It was Ruairidh who slithered out on a wooden plank to save her. ‘I’ll keep you safe,’ he said.

May has conducted extensive research into the Hebridean weaving business, giving his tale of the fictional Ranish Tweed a solid foundation. He explains the different looms that are used, how the cloth is made at home by islanders, then finished in the local mills before being sold around the world. His descriptions of the Hebrides are lyrical and the changeable weather echoes Niamh’s erratic state of mind. Yet some of May’s characters are disappointingly clichéd. For example, Lee, the outrageous and self-indulgent fashion designer who gives them their first break, and Ruairidh’s mother, the archetypal disapproving mother-in-law. Niamh is well-rounded, her sorrow and confusion eliciting genuine sympathy. Even so, the latter section of the novel seems to lose its way. Niamh is still beset by problems but the denouement, when it finally arrives, is implausible. It undermines the mystery and tension that May has meticulously built up to that point, and the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

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