Book review: The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry
Ambrose Parry's first book, The Way of All Flesh, introduced a terrific crime investigation team with a lot of potential, creating or recreating a successful and somewhat original blend of Victorian Gothic crime thriller and historical medical drama. Its depiction of crime on the backstreets of Edinburgh in the mid-19th century was consequently a little dark and grim, but there was a glimmer of light breaking through in the medical developments around anesthetics and hygiene, two things that were badly needed in Edinburgh, progressed by the real-life eminent physician Professor Simpson and his colleagues around this time.
Also progressing around this time, but perhaps not quite so rapidly, was the question of the treatment and attitudes towards women and women's rights. Dr Simpson's maid Sarah Fisher's knowledge of the issues faced by women, her own observations working with Dr Simpson in an unofficial nursing capacity gaining medical experience, would prove instrumental in helping Dr Simpson's new apprentice Will Raven solve a series of grim murders of women in those grim backstreets. The idea of a woman, from a working class background, being able to gain a medical qualification however are still remote.
It's now three years since the events of the first book teamed Will Raven up with Sarah Fisher and things have moved on in both of their lives, drawing them apart when there almost seemed to be a spark of something between them. Will has been studying abroad in Europe - and it hasn't been without incident - returning to Edinburgh as a qualified doctor to take up the post of assistant to Professor Simpson, his former, tutor, mentor and benefactor. He is intrigued to see how things rest now between him and Sarah, but is shocked to find that her personal circumstances have changed in the intervening years, which have also not been without incident.
Nonetheless, Sarah and Will are drawn together again to look into a number of matters that affect the Simpson household. One is the matter of missing money that can't be accounted for in the doctor's books, another is an attack on Simpson's reputation by some rivals in the medical field, but they soon find themselves also looking into a number of suspicious deaths of families being afflicted by some unknown disease. Questions relating to both the treatment of women and medical developments come to the fore again in The Art of Dying, this time with the addition of the suspicion - one confirmed by first-person accounts - that the serial killer this time is a woman, and worse, probably a nurse.
Without getting too modern in its outlook, The Art of Dying does touch upon contemporary issues relating to women that persist in our society today, highlighting attitudes and behaviours developed in the past that we are still to a large extent tied to today. Sarah's condition determines this to a large extent in the barriers that prevent her from becoming a doctor, having no say in the direction of her life, but the circumstances of the 'nurse' also presents another side of issues affecting those who are born into life traps of poverty, lack of opportunities, prejudice and injustice, and the book again brilliantly ties this into how this can give rise to crime.
That's unquestionably down to the fact that the collaboration - 'Ambrose Parry' being a pseudonym for a writing team comprising of author Chris Brookmyre and medical historian Marisa Haetzman - is a successful one that works brilliantly in blending their respective skills and knowledge into a seamless thriller. All those qualities that were evident in The Way of All Flesh - where social attitudes, poverty and crime interact - are again in place in The Art of Dying, and it's a marvellous crime thriller. More than this however, there's great attention paid to Raven and Sarah, to their respective characters and relationships, and to the progress each makes. These are not stock standstill characters thrown at a crime investigation, but ones who develop with the times and there's as much intrigue in their lives and relationships - and considerable potential - as there is in this period medical crime genre that Ambrose Parry has established.