A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

Edinburgh. 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.

Thoughts

A Corruption of Blood is the third book in the medical mystery series featuring Will Raven and Sarah Fisher by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The subject matter for this book is particularly harrowing as Will is drawn into the murky world of baby farming after the body of an infant is pulled from the river at Leith where Will is attending the birth of twins. Will is understandably shocked but is determined to discover the truth behind the boy’s death.

The whole case highlights the plight of single mothers in Victorian society who were vilified for having children out of wedlock and often had to resort to selling their child via a broker who was not always reputable. The brokers would often place adverts in newspapers offering to find new homes for unwanted babies for a fee but many of the infants would be killed to eradicate the need to find a new home. Since infant mortality was already high during this era, the deaths went largely unnoticed.

The plot of A Corruption of Blood is heavily influenced by the real life story of Amelia Dyer, an English serial killer who murdered more than 400 infants in her care over a thirty-year period. A trained nurse, Amelia initially started out helping unmarried mothers legitimately, however she soon discovered there was more profit to be had by allowing the babies to die of neglect. A number of years went by before a doctor became suspicious of the number of babies dying in her care and reported her to the authorities. Incredibly, she was only convicted of neglect and was sentenced to six months hard labour. After a while, Amelia resumed her baby farming activities but this time she disposed of the bodies herself. Amelia liked to tie white edging tape around the necks of the babies and would wrap their bodies into packages weighed down with bricks which would then be thrown into a river. However, one such package resurfaced on the Thames and clues on the wrapping led the police to Amelia who was trapped in an undercover operation. Amelia later confessed to her crimes and was hanged on 10 June 1896.

The baby farming plot owes a large debt to Amelia Dyer and there are many elements of her story woven into Will’s case, all of which is acknowledged in the afterword. The reimagined story works very well in Victorian Edinburgh where the social divides are evident between the newer and older parts of the town which Will regularly moves between. As Will pursues the truth behind the baby’s death, Sarah is drawn into the same case when she is asked to by one of Dr. Simpson’s housemaids to find the son she was forced to hand over to a woman who promised to find him a new home. Sarah immediately wonders if the dead baby belongs to Christine but is relieved the dead child doesn’t have the distinctive birthmark Christine described.

Will and Sarah work better together in this novel than the previous ones as a lot has happened in their personal lives. Sarah, now financially independent after the death of her husband, has recently returned to Edinburgh after travelling to Europe to meet Elizabeth Blackwell, a British physician, who was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Sarah has dreams of following in the illustrious woman’s footsteps but Blackwell shatters her illusions when she reveals the full extent of how difficult it is for a woman to get a foothold in such a male dominated profession, especially one from Sarah’s background. Disillusioned, Sarah realises her best chance probably lies in the household of Dr. Simpson and decides to return to Edinburgh to see if there is a chance for her to make a life with Will. However, Sarah is astounded to learn Will is already engaged to be married to Eugenie, a doctor’s daughter.

Having come to the conclusion he has no future with Sarah, Will is intent on establishing his own practice and marriage to Eugenie will help him achieve that goal but he soon discovers his fiancée has a few secrets of her own when she pleads with him to help a childhood friend who has been accused of murdering his father. Will is reluctant to agree since the friend in question just happens to be Gideon Douglas, an insufferable snob who tormented Will at medical school. Although he is concerned about what Eugenie and her father are hiding from him, Will is determined it will not change how he feels about his fiancée and the marriage will go ahead as planned. Will, who once allowed his obsession with his social standing to get in the way of any prospective relationship with Sarah, has matured over the course of this series into a much more likeable character.

Of course, the return of Sarah disrupts Will’s future plans and it is obvious there is still something simmering between them. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next.

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