Edinburgh, 1850. Despite being at the forefront of modern medicine, hordes of patients are dying all across the city, with doctors finding their remedies powerless. But it is not just the deaths that dismay the esteemed Dr. James Simpson – a whispering campaign seeks to blame him for the death of a patient in suspicious circumstances.
Simpson’s protégé, Will Raven, and former housemaid, Sarah Fisher, are determined to clear their patron’s name. But with Raven battling against the dark side of his own nature, and Sarah endeavouring to expand her own medical knowledge beyond what society deems acceptable for a woman, the pair struggle to understand the cause of the deaths.
Will and Sarah must unite and plunge into Edinburgh’s deadliest streets to clear Simpson’s name. But soon they discover that the true cause of these deaths has evaded suspicion purely because it is so unthinkable.
The Art of Dying is the second book in the Raven and Fisher series written by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Dr. Marisa Haetzman. This story is set about two years after the events of the previous one, and we learn Will Raven has been expanding his horizons by studying in various medical establishments throughout Europe. However, trouble is never far away and Will is forced to return to Edinburgh after killing a man in self-defence in a street attack in Berlin. Assuming the position of assistant obstetrician at Professor James Simpson’s house, Will is astounded when he learns Sarah Fisher has married another doctor in his absence.
Will has little time to ponder on Sarah’s new circumstances though as she informs him someone is trying to malign Simpson’s good name by accusing him of medical negligence which led to the death of a patient. Sarah is determined to prove Simpson’s innocence and seeks Will’s help, however he is reluctant to get involved in anything that may affect his future standing in the medical community. When another death occurs, Will’s suspicions are immediately aroused and his subsequent investigation reveals there may be a serial killer stalking the streets of Edinburgh.
While I enjoyed being back on the streets of Victorian Edinburgh, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first one and I think that is mainly down to my ambivalence over Will Raven who has not really changed much over the past two years. Obsessed with his growing reputation as a doctor, Will is still putting himself before others and sees the multiple deaths as a way of garnering fame. Initially believing the spate of deaths was due to a new exotic disease, Will was more intent on having the cure named after him the treating the patients which I found distasteful. There is nothing wrong with ambition but a good doctor should be putting his patients first.
Will has also learned no lessons in regard to Sarah and is genuinely stupefied by the fact another doctor has done what Will couldn’t and married a poor housemaid with no thought for his standing in the community. Will is the one who let Sarah down, yet he feels he has been wronged by her in some way and it starts to get tedious after awhile. I was willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt in the first book due to his youth but he hasn’t grown at all despite his experiences in Europe and he keeps making the same mistakes. Sarah, on the other hand, has married for convenience rather than love but her husband is keen to support her dream of becoming a doctor.
The murder plot is a decent one and since the killer has her own narrative voice, we know who she is very early on in the book, even though Will and Sarah do not, and this allows us to understand why she has become a killer. The method of poisoning is too easy to work out though and I had it figured out long before Sarah and Will. Knowing the identity of the killer in advance doesn’t mean there aren’t any twists in the plot and they do work for the most part. The overall story was just a little flat for me for some reason, even though the historical details were outstanding as usual.