The Way Of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.
In Edinburgh’s Old Town young women are being found dead, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. Across the city 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 Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.
As a huge fan of historical fiction, the synopsis instantly captured my interest. Edinburgh 1847, medicine, money and murder = SOLD! Within the immediate opening scenes you are aware that the writing is without a doubt intelligent and skilled. The novel is packed full of interesting and insightful information regarding the history of medicine. This is a huge part of this novel and it is not a typical Victorian era, murdered prostitute thriller, it is very much more than that!
‘That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves’
In the opening scenes protagonist Will Raven discovers the murdered corpse of prostitute Evie Lawson. He is horrified at the scene but flees fearing he will be blamed. Raven is a client of Evie’s and it is this that leads him to become obsessed with finding her killer!
‘It was not a night for solitude, or for sobriety’
Raven’s background is explored, and we learn that contrary to his public persona, he is not a man of financial means. In fact, he is wanted by Edinburgh’s most feared loan sharks. With the brutal warning find the money or lose an eye.
All hope resides on his new apprenticeship with Dr Simpson.
Raven arrives at Dr Simpson’s and introduced to an array of characters. Jarvis the butler, David and Walter the elder children of the Simpson family and Miss Mina Grindlay, Dr Simpson’s demanding and selfish sister-in-law. But it is not any of these that catch his eye or irritate him. But it is Sarah the housemaid. Sarah is quite the force to be reckoned with, as Raven will come to discover himself.
Dr Simpson is a professor of midwifery and assists all patients rich and poor. At first Raven is completely taken aback by this approach but eventually with experience, comes to appreciate what Dr Simpson is hoping to achieve. Raven is shocked to when he is informed that Sarah assists with morning clinics and even more surprised by the depth of her knowledge. Needless to say the pair do not get off to a great start.
When Sarah learns that the Sheldrake family’s housemaid Rose has absconded and gone missing she is concerned. Mr Sheldrake was known to have quite the temper and Rose was known to be no angel herself. But something eats away at Sarah about the case and she becomes determined to gather some more information.
Evie’s body is finally discovered and quickly assumed to be a suicide via alcohol. Which Raven knows to be untrue given the gruesome scene and the signs upon the corpse. But in this era, women are second class citizens, let alone women of the night.
There are various scenes with patients which all assist Raven in his education and apprenticeship. As the readers they are often truly insightful case studies of what it was like to be a woman in the Victorian era. When you had little say/rights over your own reproductive system, in the medical sense.
Raven continues to have disagreements with Sarah and it is clear to see Raven believes a servant especially a female servant should know her place! At times I found Raven quite hypocritical given that he is staff himself. But Sarah can hold her own and makes it quite clear what she thinks of Raven in return!
“It is my duty to assess those waiting and to recommend the order of urgency by which they ought to be admitted” – Sarah
Sarah longs for a career in medicine, she is intelligent, driven and more than capable. However, the era has a long way to go. She attempts to apply for a position at the local druggist’s. When she is simply scolded for even thinking such an idea would work. . .
‘Our assistant must inspire confidence in our customers. For that, only a man will do’ – Mr Duncan
Raven, Sarah and Dr Simpson all have very credible and interesting backstory’s. They read like real people from history.
Raven and Sarah continue to investigate the two recent deaths and through a bizarre twist of events end up working together. This I absolutely loved, the characters slowly grow on you, but none more so, than when they eventually team up.
But who is the killer targeting women? Is it an illegal abortionist gone wrong? When Raven accompanies Dr Simpson to the local hospital, he witnesses first hand the dangers of women with no access to adequate medical healthcare.
‘Desperate people are often driven to do desperate things’ – Ziegler
As you read on, you begin to question the killer’s motives. Is this a form of medical experimentation? Are the women being punished? When Rose’s body Is found to be with child, it adds further weight to these theories. Raven begins to sympathise with the desperation the women must have felt. . .
‘Desperation is often the mother of misplaced faith’ – Raven
The novel has a clear feel for more literary/historical fiction than crime fiction. Despite the murders that take place. As the focus remains on the medicine within the era. You really get a sense of how dire the situation was for women in 1847.
The novel has such a literary feel and I had so many quotes I wanted to use. I shall leave you with my favourite. . .
‘The only difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage’
Unique, incredibly well-researched and insightful historical fiction 4.5*