The Way of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry
Is there room for another Victorian era historical murder-mystery series? On the evidence of this first book from Ambrose Parry, there is definitely the makings of something special and a little bit different from the norm in The Way of All Flesh. Undoubtedly the reason for its success is in the authorship, ‘Ambrose Parry’ being a pseudonym for a writing team comprising of author Chris Brookmyre and medical historian Marisa Haetzman. The rationale behind the team-up, rather than the conventional route of an author relying on expert sources for specialised information, is that the book can enjoy the benefits of authentic detailed historical and medical knowledge of a fascinating period in the development of modern medical procedures and combine it with an established crime author’s sense of plotting and pacing that can tie it into a thrilling murder-mystery.
One indication of the collaboration being seamless is that if I didn’t know the Chris Brookmyre was involved in this book, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed, even though The Way of All Flesh opens with the discovery of the gruesome murder of an Edinburgh Old Town prostitute by a figure with a little bit of moral ambiguity. Will Raven, a young medical student about to enter an apprenticeship with James Young Simpson, an eminent professor of midwifery, has previously consorted with Evie in a less than professional manner, but recently had been trying to help her out with money problems. The discovery of her death is a shock and he feels compelled to investigate further, but a man in his position can’t be seen to have been associated with her. The loan however has caused Raven other problems, with vicious thugs now hounding him for repayment.
It’s not the most auspicious way for Raven to enter the Simpson household, and it certainly doesn’t impress Sarah, a housekeeper for Dr Simpson. Sarah helps out informally at the doctor’s surgery, picking up useful information on ailments and treatments in the process, educating herself with books. Keenly intelligent, there is however no route for a young woman, particularly of her background, to enter the profession in 1847, so there is perhaps a little bit of resentment at this young man being given preferential treatment. That doesn’t entirely account for Sarah’s initial dislike of Raven however. She’s sure he is not entirely who he claims to be and her keen eye quickly proves that she might have good grounds for suspicion.
What brings the two of them together – with despite their initial resentment of each other some not entirely unexpected attraction – are further reports of deaths of other young women in Edinburgh. There appears to be a connection between their backgrounds – prostitutes, servants – the possibility that they may have been pregnant, and the manner of their deaths suggesting poisoning. Sarah’s background and position as a servant means that she can go to places without attracting attention, while Raven has recourse to investigation of some of the medical matters that the cases present. The sense of teamwork here, of each bringing a set of skills and knowledge to the table in a way reflects the working partnership of ‘Ambrose Parry’. And in both aspects, it’s clearly a relationship that works well.
It’s by no means certain that the collaboration will work as The Way of All Flesh takes a little while to develop the central murder investigation. With much going on into the early research into anaesthesia in the 1840s – much of the development taking place in the medical world of Edinburgh – there is no shortage of incidents and descriptions of medical procedures, and no shortage of action in Raven’s attempts to keep out of the hands of the criminal underworld. It’s only in those more dangerous parts of town however that Raven will perhaps find the information he needs to identify who murdered Evie and the other girls, and why. That investigation takes a little while to find its feet, but the wait is more than worthwhile.
The Way of All Flesh is never anything less than fascinating for the background and historical detail that is provided into the medical world of Edinburgh around this time, and also for the colourful class, gender and social divisions that it highlights. With the medical procedures being primarily around childbirth, the murders all being young women, and with an indignant Sarah playing an important role in showing the prejudice and inequalities that abound in Victorian society, the issue of the treatment of women is very much to the fore. A little over-emphasised perhaps, but the slow build up pays off in how it gives the main characters of Sarah and Raven some depth, and how all these matters relate directly to crime in the city. This is a terrific start to a promising new series by a great ‘new’ author.
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry is published by Canongate Books on the 30th August 2018
Comic review: Omni-Visibilis by Trondheim and Bonhomme
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