The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Published by Canongate Books

Synopsis:

A vivid and gripping historical crime novel set in 19th century Edinburgh, from husband-and-wife writing team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.

Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.

With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

This book is a combination of all my favourite things when it comes to an atmospheric murder mystery – Edinburgh, 1800s, class conflicts and medicine.

The nineteenth century was a fascinating time for scientific discoveries, especially in medicine and this book closely follows the doctors involved in the first uses of anaesthetics. Ether was most famously known for its use during childbirth and this book is clearly exceptionally well researched as the authors describe the history of female medicine during a time of ridiculous modesty – I loved this insight into something that was shrouded in mystery for so long. It describes how male doctors present at births weren’t actually allowed to look at the business end of the babymaker, so everything had to be done by touch alone… which is what I mean by ridiculous modesty.

The story is told through the perspectives of Will Raven, young doctor’s apprentice with a troubled past, and Sarah Fisher, respectable but intellectually ambitious housemaid. Both of them are well developed characters, struggling against the constraints society has placed against them, which gives them both a depth that I found fascinating. Their character arcs during this book were steady, which I now realise is because this title is the first in a series which has filled me with great joy knowing that I’ll get to read more of them in the future!
All of the characters in this book are well written and contribute something meaningful to the narrative, I particularly liked Mina (sister in law to Will Raven’s mentor, Dr Simpson) as well as the general descriptions of the Simpson household.

The writing style feels convincingly authentic for a historical fiction set in the Victorian era Scotland which made the story a pleasure to read, my only reservation was that the suspense wasn’t really mounting in the lead up to the whodunnit reveal. I can certainly say that the beautiful writing style made the book a pleasure to read in its own right, but if you’re going to put a mystery in a novel then I want it to be a nail biter!

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