Source: Review copy
Publication: 19 August 2021 from Canongate Books
My thanks to Canongate for an early copy for review
Edinburgh, 1850. This city will bleed you dry.
Dr Will Raven is a man seldom shocked by human remains, but even he is disturbed by the contents of a package washed up at the Port of Leith. Stranger still, a man Raven has long detested is pleading for his help to escape the hangman.
Back in the townhouse of Dr James Simpson, Sarah Fisher has set her sights on learning to practise medicine. Almost everyone seems intent on dissuading her from this ambition, but when word reaches her that a woman has recently obtained a medical degree despite her gender, Sarah decides to seek her out.
Raven’s efforts to prove his former adversary’s innocence are failing and he desperately needs Sarah’s help. Putting their feelings for one another aside, their investigations take them to both extremes of Edinburgh’s social divide, where they discover that wealth and status cannot alter a fate written in the blood.
This series keeps on delighting. A fascinating blend of fact and fiction (pleasingly, they tell you in the end notes which is which) set in the very real 52, Queen Street in in late-Victorian Edinburgh. This is the third book featuring the intrepid pair Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher who live in the house of Dr James Simpson, a medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform in medical operations.
Will is studying with Dr Simpson and Sarah, who started these books as an intelligent and curious housemaid, and who progressed to Dr Simpson’s trusted assistant, through marriage and subsequent widowhood, now finds herself in a position where she should be able to pursue her aspirations.
Sarah has gone on a voyage abroad with Dr Simpson’s sister, Mina as companion, but all she really wants to do is to speak to Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman practicing Doctor. She is Sarah’s role model and she wants to find out all she can from her about how she achieved her role. But the answers that Sarah receives leave her dejected and she returns to Edinburgh her spirit crushed and feeling a not a little lost. Society is not ready to receive a woman doctor and even if it were, Sarah has much to learn before she can achieve her dream.
Will, meanwhile has mostly recovered from Sarah’s marriage and has himself taken more than a liking to the daughter of another prominent Edinburgh physician, Dr. Todd. Making such a match would elevate Will in Edinburgh society, which is why it is a mystery that Dr Todd, if not wholly approving, is prepared to countenance the match.
Ambrose Parry’s rich and descriptive writing steeps us in the contrasts that abound in this Edinburgh. The emphasis on learning while the poor are left in poverty, squalor and despair is stark. The casual attitude to the loss of human life when the subject is poor and has no influence is hard to consider. Here the affluent flaunt their transgressions while maintaining a veneer of civility lest their carefully guarded reputations should slip and reveal their true depravities.
A Corruption of Blood follows a dual plot-line with Sarah pursuing her quest for Christina’s baby and Will, after the discovery of a murdered baby in the harbour at Leith, against his inclination, trying to find out if an old enemy has really committed the murder of a prominent Edinburgh high society figure, Sir Ainsley Douglas. Though the facts seem clear and redoubtable Edinburgh Inspector of Police, James McLevy is certain he has his man, the more Will looks into the case, the more doubts he has. But the truth is hard to come by and it will take both Will and Sarah, working together, to solve these mysteries. Their chemistry is undeniable and I really enjoyed the difficult but frank conversation they have which paves the way for them to work together again.
Though this is a highly enjoyable story that rattles along at a fair old pace and is full of warmth and affection for its central characters, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that at the heart of this story is a tense and heart-breaking story based on real life events which is both shocking and indicative of just how hypocritical this society’s attitudes towards women really was.
Verdict: A Corruption of Blood tackles some difficult and heart-breaking subjects and, as always, it is laced with some pertinent observations on the position of women at the time. I love the research that gives authenticity to these dark and sobering tales and the way the hypocrisy and mores of ‘polite’ Edinburgh society the times shines through in these stories. This is a fantastic addition to a terrific series, well researched and full of riveting moments. I loved it.
Ambrose Parry is the penname for two very different authors – the internationally bestselling and multi-award-winning Chris Brookmyre and consultant anaesthetist of twenty years’ experience, Dr Marisa Haetzman. Inspired by the gory details Haetzman uncovered during her History of Medicine degree, the couple teamed up to write a series of historical crime thrillers, featuring the darkest of Victorian Edinburgh’s secrets. They are married and live in Scotland. Both The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. A Corruption of Blood is the third in the series.