Hordes of patients are dying all across the city, with doctors finding their remedies powerless. And a whispering campaign seeks to paint Dr James Simpson, pioneer of medical chloroform, as a murderer.
Determined to clear Simpson’s name, his protégé Will Raven and former housemaid Sarah Fisher must plunge into Edinburgh’s deadliest streets and find out who or what is behind the deaths. Soon they discover that the cause of the deaths has evaded detection purely because it is so unthinkable.
Having thoroughly enjoyed The Way of All Flesh, the first of Ambrose Parry’s historical mysteries to feature Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, I jumped at the chance to be part of the blog tour for the paperback release of the follow-up, intriguingly entitled The Art of Dying.
Set two years after the conclusion of The Way of all Flesh, The Art of Dying sees Will Raven, now a fully qualified doctor, returning to 52 Queen Street and to the employ of the brilliant yet eccentric Dr James Simpson. He finds a household that is both the same yet different in small but crucial ways. One of Dr Simpson’s previous employees has levelled a dreadful accusation of medical negligence against him. There is a new assistant whose skulking and watchful eyes seem to keep the whole household under surveillance. And former housemaid Sarah Fisher is now not only elevated into the role of doctor’s assistant but, more importantly for Raven, now Mrs Sarah Banks.
As new relationships are forged and old acquaintances – both welcome and unwelcome – are renewed, Raven and Sarah once again join forces in an effort to clear the name of their friend and mentor. But in doing so, they inadvertently stumble upon a dangerous murderer. One who may have hidden undetected for years. And who, upon discovery, is more than prepared to kill again.
As with The Way of All Flesh, The Art of Dying does a fantastic job of conjuring the world of nineteenth-century Edinburgh in all it’s messy glory. From the refined elegance of the New Town townhouses to the darkened alleyways of the historic Old Town closes, the city and its people leap off the page.
For newcomers to the series, The Art of Dying does an excellent job of reintroducing the characters and their relative situations without spoiling the conclusion of the first novel. Whilst I would certainly recommend starting with The Way of all Flesh (a cracking mystery in its own right), there is certainly nothing to stop readers diving in to Will and Sarah’s world with The Art of Dying.
Indeed, the two years between the two novels have given time for the characters to grow and develop. The subtle but noticeable changes in the characters of Sarah and Will are fascinating to see and I really enjoyed the way in which their relationship changes and develops over the course of the novel. There are also some pleasing reintroductions to some familiar characters, including the eccentric yet brilliant James Simpson (a real life Professor of Midwifery, and a pioneer of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic) and Raven’s wonderfully menacing ‘friends in low places’.
As with the previous book in the series, I really enjoyed the ways in which the plot is used to examine wider societal issues, such as female education. Intelligent and open-minded, Sarah is desperate to use her newly gained medical knowledge to qualify as a doctor but – in Edinburgh at least – her gender precludes her from ever realising her dreams. Raven, meanwhile, is struggling to come to terms with the psychology of his own inner nature, as well as with decisions made two years previously on the basis of class and societal pressures.
The series also gives a fascinating insight into the early days of obstetric medicine, including arguments for and against the use of anaesthetic and the difficulties in performing caesarean sections. This does, of course, mean that the book reflects the medical practices and attitudes of the time – trigger warnings for some slightly gruesome depictions of early medical procedures, as well as for mentions of drug-taking, cancer, miscarriage and stillbirth.
Despite the occasionally grim atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Art of Dying. The central mystery is brilliantly woven into the historical reality that grounds the novel. The various plot strands, at first seemingly disparate, are masterfully woven together and, whilst it wears its learning lightly, it is clear that the novel is a well-researched and immersive examination of the attitudes and realities of the era.
I also really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with Raven and Sarah. For all his faults (and he has quite a few), Raven is an endearing young man and it is easy to empathise with his quest to better himself both educationally and psychologically. Sarah, meanwhile, has lost none of the spark, vivacity, or compassion that made her such an engaging character in The Way of All Flesh, and it was wonderful – if occasionally heart-breaking – to see the developments in her character and confidence over the course of the novel.
The Art of Dying is both a worthy successor to The Way of All Flesh and, for those new to the series, a brilliant jumping off point for entry into the murky, complicated world of nineteenth-century Edinburgh that Ambrose Parry has conjured with their pen. I’m already awaiting Raven and Sarah’s next outing with great anticipation.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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 onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 19 January 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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