Source: Review Copy
Publication: 30th August 2018 from Canongate
Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.
In the city’s Old Town a number of young women have been found dead, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. Across the city 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 Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into the city’s spate of suspicious 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.
In another blogpost, from The Edinburgh International Book Festival, I’ll be talking about the session with Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman where they discuss their first co-writing venture as Ambrose Parry. But before that, I want to tell you about this brilliant book.
The first thing that strikes you, as you open the pages, is how quickly you are drawn in to the narrative voice. It immediately transports you back into the past; back to the days of Edinburgh in 1847 – a city of two halves, Old and New Town: of “public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.” In the Old town people were living one atop another in ‘the foetid labyrinth that was the Old Town, like Breugel’s Tower of Babel or Botticelli’s Map of Hell.
Will Raven is spending his last night as an impoverished and in debt student in the old town, prior to going as an apprentice to Dr James Young Simpson, a doctor specialising in obstetrics and anaesthetics, and after whom the Edinburgh Simpson Maternity Hospital is named.
Will is in pieces, after finding his friend Evie, a prostitute, dead in her squalid room in the Old Town’s Canongate. On his way to the New Town he is set upon by two men, enforcers sent by moneylender Flint to ensure that he pays his debts sooner than anticipated. Hurt, wounded and in disarray he arrives at the door of Dr Simpson’s residence at 52 Queen Street to begin his sojourn.
The household at first glance seems chaotic, though that’s mainly due to the two children who rampage through it; that and the fact that Dr Simpson conducts his surgeries and his experiments at home.
Will fails to endear himself to the household staff, and he soon learns that his life will be much smoother if he makes his peace with Sarah Fisher, an intelligent and resourceful housemaid who loves to help Dr Simpson with his potions and who would dearly love to work in medicine, were she not both from a poor working class background and also a woman.
Sarah’s pain from her head constantly hitting the glass ceiling is so frustrating to watch as lesser, more dullard men are enabled in front of her and this story is as much hers as it is Will Raven’s.
In many ways Simpson was a remarkable man. A pioneer in using anaesthetics to relieve the pain experienced by many women in childbirth he is courted by the rich but will happily spend as much time as he can ministering to the poor for no reward. Driven by the need to improve the practice of obstetrics, he will follow his vocation wherever it takes him.
Brilliantly weaving together fact and fiction the authors offer a dark and evocative tale of a young man searching for a terrifying killer against a backdrop of the exciting and sometimes quite dangerous methods employed by James Young Simpson in his quest to advance the cause of science and medicine.
Amidst the foul smells and putrid air, the stories of malpractice and butchery abound, but what really strikes home is the power that men had over women’s lives. Whether preaching over their need to experience pain in childbirth, or simply not slowing them to fulfil their potential, this is a book that had me railing against the many injustices of the time.
Brilliantly evocative of the different faces of Edinburgh and charting the use of ether and then the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, it is both a fascinating murder mystery with great characters and relationships, and at the same time an intriguing factual tale about the medical advances of the time.
I loved the characters of Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, both well drawn and well-rounded characters who are more than deserving of a second book in this series. It was good, too, to see the involvement of Inspector James McLevy of that ilk, though it’s fair to say he doesn’t always come across as the ace detective history would like him to be.
Verdict: Fabulously atmospheric, unafraid to explore the dark underbelly of Edinburgh and gloriously written as a fast paced and gripping tale, this is a terrific read that I immediately want more of – and soon.
About Ambrose Parry
Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym of the husband and wife team of Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Chris Brookmyre is a bestselling crime writer whose 21 books are all contemporary or set in the future; Marisa Haetzman has been an anesthesiologist for 20 years. Haetzman stopped practicing to get a master’s degree in the history of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and while researching Simpson, uncovered fascinating stories. Combined with the goings on in 1840s Edinburgh, the extremes of high brow and low, and “the colorful nature of Simpson’s domestic arrangements,” Haetzman thought there were the perfect elements for a historical mystery.