Source: Review copy
Publication: 29th August 2019 from Canongate Books
Edinburgh, 1849. Despite Edinburgh being at the forefront of modern medicine, hordes of patients are dying all across the city, with doctors finding their remedies powerless. But it is not just the deaths that dismay the esteemed Dr James Simpson. A whispering campaign seeks to blame him for the death of a patient in suspicious circumstances.
Simpson’s protégé Will Raven and former housemaid Sarah Fisher are determined to clear their patron’s name. But with Raven battling against the dark side of his own nature, and Sarah endeavouring to expand her own medical knowledge beyond what society deems acceptable for a woman, the pair struggle to understand the cause of the deaths.
Will and Sarah must unite and plunge into Edinburgh’s deadliest streets to clear Simpson’s name. But soon they discover that the true cause of these deaths has evaded suspicion purely because it is so unthinkable.
I loved The Way of All Flesh, the first Sarah Fisher and Will Raven book, so I was really fired up to read the follow up, The Art of Dying. Brookmyre and Haetzman have together created a distinctive and compelling pair of characters and their voices resonate down the path of the history of medicine in this fascinating and intriguing historical crime story.
One of the reasons this collaboration is so successful is that much of it is based on fact and Haetzman’s interest in the medicine of the era and her immaculate research has provided a wealth of fascinating and true stories from the 19th Century which are the foundation for these books.
Sarah and Will are such great characters. Sarah is a strong woman who is only beginning to learn what she may be capable of. In the first book she was a housemaid, quick witted, learning as she watched. Now she has more resources and a firmer place in the world. As she meets some of the women for whom medicine has been their world, she is slowly beginning to realise that what she wants may, after all, be attainable.
Meanwhile Will Raven, newly returned from Europe where he combined his medicinal learning with a romantic dalliance, is beginning to regret his own deferment to what he perceived would have been hostile public opinion. He has missed Sarah more than he wants to admit, but is now realising that he may have to repent his hesitation at leisure.
Set in 1850, this is an Edinburgh alive with all its bustle, class distinctions and maps of the less salubrious areas as well as the more affluent Trinity and Queen Street. The wit is ever present too, even that old Edinburgh joke about not being offered tea when a visitor comes to call.
From the outset, readers are given a glimpse into the mind of this murderer; one who is responsible for the deaths of four family members within a fortnight as well, we learn, as countless others. Then Will and Sarah, working together to try and clear Dr Simpson’s name after being accused, sotto-voce, of the death of one of his patients, begin to see a pattern. By comparing symptoms that relate to Dr. Simpson’s unfortunate patient and to the four family members, plus a patient that Will has advised on, they realise there is a common denominator. Will, a man easily overexcited at the prospect of enhancing his reputation, thinks he has discovered a new disease, one which he quickly names, ‘Raven’s Malady’. Sarah is the one to come up with a more likely working hypothesis, but it takes Will longer to see what Sarah knew from the start – that they are up against a dangerous foe.
The Art of Dying has a number of different plot strands, neatly intertwined with an emotive storyline that brings the whole Queen Street household bustling into life. A number of the more dubious, colourful characters from Will’s past also make a welcome return. Then just when you think you’ve got it all sussed out, there’s a nice little surprise or two waiting for you.
Verdict: I loved this book for its rich characterisation; for a setting that springs out from the pages and comes to life; for a storyline that makes you want to cry and cheer alternately and for a nice line in cutting wit that leavens a sometimes very dark scenario. Bring on the next one – but where will it be set?
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.