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

Want You Gone – Herald Review

Want You Gone

Chris Brookmyre

Little, Brown £18.99

ONE of the defining characteristics of Chris Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels is the development of his protagonist. While other crime luminaries rest comfortably in stasis, Parlabane, like a great white shark, keeps moving. This makes him one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction, stumbling into one bad situation after another, but finding a way through thanks to his own particular sense of morality.

In this tale, Parlabane is called on to repay a favour and is plunged into the cyber world of hackers. He is in London to attend an interview with Broadwave, an achingly hip online news outlet. His disreputable past is proving a sticking point but the young editor is a fan and Parlabane soon finds himself in gainful employment. He is living in the flat of a friend who is abroad and his life is settling down. When the Royal Scottish Great Northern bank is hacked, Parlabane decides to get in touch with ace hacker, Buzzkill, who has both helped and hindered him in the past. He is hoping Buzzkill will give him inside information, so that he can start his Broadwave career with an exclusive story.

Meanwhile, Sam Morpeth is living in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Her mother is in prison, and Sam has to look after her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down’s syndrome. Giving up her dream of going to university, Sam leaves school and takes a job in a sandwich shop. In order to work full-time, she tries to access benefits to pay for an after-school club for Lilly. However, she must already be working full-time in order to qualify, the benefits officer with a face “like a recently slammed door” tells her. Brookmyre is no stranger to including social comment in his novels and here he takes aim at the benefits system. He piles misery upon misery on 19-year-old Sam, pushing her to the extreme. Sam’s online life keeps her sane but when a stranger calling himself Zodiac, threatens to expose every facet of her life, she is blackmailed into committing crime. Turning to Parlabane for help, she in turn threatens to expose his more illegal actions to ensure his cooperation. Together they devise the crime, all the while looking for a way to outwit Zodiac. Sam has to think of Lilly’s welfare while Parlabane is trying to keep his new job.

Brookmyre’s black humour is evident throughout the novel. Parlabane comes across a receptionist, “wearing roughly as much foundation as Joan of Arc would need for an open-casket funeral”. When he attends a Broadwave party, “everything is so on-trend that the leftovers are likely binned in a few hours for being out of fashion”.

The online duel between Sam and Zodiac could make for very dull reading. However, Brookmyre injects plenty of jeopardy to ratchet up the tension. Sam explains her plan to Parlabane who knows a little about computers but is lost when she starts planting Trojan Horses and finding back doors. He is more at home when he has to charm vital information from unwitting employees. Although a lot of the action takes place in cyber space, it doesn’t stop Parlabane from breaking and entering premises and almost freezing to death while stealing a prototype from a sub-zero lab. Much of the time he and Sam seem to be one step ahead of the police but one step behind the mysterious Zodiac.

This is an older, somewhat wiser Parlabane, who is trying to get his life on an even keel. He develops an unexpectedly paternal relationship with Sam, which means he takes the kind of risks he had promised himself were in the past. It is curious to see him in this role. Disarmed by Sam’s courage and determination to look after Lilly, he seems bewildered by his feelings.

Brookmyre’s plot is full of surprising twists and turns that make it pleasingly difficult to guess the ending, while Parlabane’s evolution forms the emotional heart of the novel. It is an engrossing read, combining appealing characters with a contemporary scenario drawn from the murkier corners of modern life.

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