Will Raven is a medical student, apprenticing for the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Sarah Fisher is Simpson’s housemaid, and has all of Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges.
As bodies begin to appear across the Old Town, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld. And if either of them are to make it out alive, they will have to work together to find out who’s responsible for the gruesome deaths.
Regular readers of The Shelf will know that I love crime fiction, especially a well-turned murder mystery of the classic variety. I also love evocative historical fiction capable of whisking me off to another time and place. So a book that brilliantly combines the two, such as The Way of All Flesh, was bound to be a winner for me!
This is the first novel by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym for a collaboration between husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre (who’s latest standalone, Fallen Angel, I reviewed a couple of weeks ago) and Marisa Haetzman.
The Way of All Flesh is quite a different kettle of fish to Brookmyre’s usual fare, being a historical murder mystery set in 1840s Edinburgh and filled to brimming with the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling city. This historical touch has been provided by Haetzman who, in addition to being a consultant anaesthetist, uncovered much of the material upon which the novel is based when researching her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
The result is a taut historical mystery set in a fully-realised Victorian Edinburgh that features a fantastic cast of both fictional and historical characters. I love historical novels that teach me something about the period whilst also telling a fantastic story and, on this score, The Way of All Flesh, succeeds brilliantly.
The household of the real-life Dr James Simpson, the doctor who pioneered the use of chloroform, is brilliantly bought to life and I was fascinated to learn about the early history of obstetrics and the way in which the first anaesthesias were used to ease the pain and suffering of childbirth. Simpson is a fascinating character, treating rich and poor alike and pioneering the use of both new medicines and new social attitudes, with his open-minded approach to both social status and gender.
Fictional additions to Simpson’s household come in the form of Will Raven; a young medical apprentice with a hidden past and secrets it is vital that he keeps, and Sarah Fisher; a housemaid with a passion for knowledge and ambitions above both her gender and her station. Although the two initially dislike each other, they must soon learn to work together to prevent an unscrupulous medical practitioner whose underhand practices and back-street concoctions are killing desperate young women across Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The world of 1840s Edinburgh is vividly bought to life in the novel. I almost felt I was walking down the streets alongside Will and Sarah, visiting the bedsides of the sick with Dr Simpson, and sitting in the crowded lecture hall alongside the medical students. The contrast between the worlds of the rich and poor are extremely well-drawn, embodied in the character of Will who straddles both worlds without feeling entirely comfortable in either.
You can probably already tell that I loved this novel. It’s a cracking mystery, set in a fully-realised and thoroughly-researched historical setting and packed with realistic characters that you’ll soon begin to care for. Fans of C.J Sansom or Anne Perry are sure to love this series and, as the first book in a series, it’s a great jumping off point for crime fans seeking to move into historical fiction (or historical fiction fans who want to try a bit of crime in their reading life!). Thoroughly recommended, I’m so pleased that Raven and Fisher will return in a sequel later this year, as I cannot wait to read about their next misadventures!
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry is published by Canongate and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones (where it’s Thriller of the Month for May 2019) and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to this blog tour. Do check out other tour stops for more reviews, exclusive content, and more!