Edinburgh, 1847. 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.
Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
The Way of the Flesh is the debut novel from husband and wife team, Chris Brookmyre, a crime writer, and Dr Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist, under the pseudonym of Ambrose Parry. When I read the first reviews for this book I was very excited to read it as the storyline sounded fantastic and the setting in Victorian Edinburgh appealed to me immensely so I’m glad to say it didn’t disappoint.
The story centres around a young medical student, Will Raven, who is trying to better himself by getting away from the slum streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town and into the more refined world of the New Town. Will manages to secure an apprenticeship with the esteemed obstetrician, James Young Simpson, who was the first physician to demonstrate the anaesthetic properties of chloroform on humans and helped to popularise the drug’s use in medicine. When Will takes up his new job, Simpson is still testing out various forms of anaesthesia with the help of his assistants, George Skene Keith and James Matthews Duncan.
Before leaving the Old Town, Will is shocked when he discovers his friend Evie, who made her living as a prostitute, dead in her bed but he flees from the scene without alerting the authorities fearing his new job may put be in jeopardy. Haunted by Evie’s death, Will is dismayed to learn a number of other women have been found dead in similar circumstances and everything seems to be pointing to a backstreet abortionist. Determined to find justice for Evie, Will begins to explore the latest killings but soon finds himself under suspicion when his past catches up with him.
Our second protagonist is Sarah Fisher, a young woman who works as a domestic in Simpson’s household but longs to be free of the shackles of her gender. Sarah, who is extremely intelligent, is often asked to organise the patients who arrive at Simpson’s practice and she relishes this part of her job but it causes resentment from the other servants. When Will arrives, Sarah takes an immediate dislike to the young student due to his arrogant manner and perceived superiority but she soon becomes entangled in his investigation when an acquaintance of hers becomes a victim.
Sarah and Will are likeable characters who both have significant flaws to overcome but that only serves to make them more appealing and it is fun watching them spar with each other in the early stages. They have to learn to put their prejudices aside in an effort to work together and they slowly find some common ground as they realise their initial perceptions of each other were ill-founded. By the end of the book, the characters have learned to trust each other but there is still room for improvement and it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the series.
One if my favourite aspects of the book though is the Edinburgh setting and the authors do a fantastic job of contrasting the poverty of the Old Town with the prosperity of the New Town. The Old Town is a myriad of narrow closes or alleyways leading outward from the Royal Mile where danger lurks around every dark corner and there is a sense of hopelessness to people’s lives. In contrast, the New Town feels far less sinister with its wide avenues and street lighting. If you know Edinburgh at all, you will recognise many of the familiar landmarks of the New Town which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Most of the closes in the Old Town have long gone but there are still a few places left where you can get a feel for what it must’ve looked like.
The medical side of things is also well researched and you get a real sense of how prominent Edinburgh was in medicine in those days. As well as Simpson and his associates, the book is chock full of real historical figures but they are blended in seamlessly with the fictional characters. Some of the medical procedures are quite gruesome and along with a distinct lack of hygiene during surgery, you wonder how anyone could have survived at all. Of course, the focus is mainly on childbirth which was a dangerous business in that period and Simpson was a pioneer in the field of obstetrics.
All in all, this is an intriguing opening novel in a brand new series which holds a lot of promise.