The streets of Edinburgh,1849, full of life and death, of poverty and possibility; the use of chloroform as anaesthetic as pioneered by Doctor James Young Simpson has made surgery less fearful and painful, but surgical procedure itself has not advanced significantly, nor is it yet clear if post-operative mortality rates have improved through the use of the wonder drug.
The practice of medicine the province of the rich, with it comes a certain arrogance and upon his return to the city from a year abroad in Europe, not without bloody incident on the streets of Berlin which will return to haunt him, Doctor Will Raven finds the reputation of his friend Doctor Simpson has been tarnished following the death of a patient through post-operative haemorrage.
With no post-mortem conducted and two of Simpson’s former friends indicating, in their professional medical opinion, that the fault lay with the surgeon, it is a scandal to be resolved in the court of public opinion, and Doctor Simpson’s assistant Sarah attempts to recruit Will in her investigations to clear his name, frustrated as they have been by the fact that she is a women, albeit it one of ill-defined position.
The already awkward friendship of Will and Sarah exacerbated by his time away and her new position, he at first refuses, focusing instead on a different matter, a series of unexplained deaths of mysterious symptoms with a single linking factor, possibly a new disease vector which if identified, he imagines, might be named Raven’s Malady, but as evidence mounts it becomes apparent the affliction goes by an older name, one well known on the streets of the city: murder.
The Art of Dying is the second novel from the pen of Ambrose Parry, the collaboration of the partners in crime otherwise known as “tartan noir” novelist Christopher Brookmyre and consultant anaesthetist Doctor Marisa Haetzman, this time she taking the lead as the majority of the novel was written while he was working on his latest solo novel, Fallen Angel, published earlier this year.
While the style of the prose is consistent with The Way of All Flesh the structure is different, almost taking the form of observation of symptoms and diagnosis of an ailment, the evidence often imprecise, obscured by other factors and further complicated by those who would deliberately misdirect or conceal for their own purposes, while the characters remain as strong-willed and resolute, often leading to them being at loggerheads in their methods.
Unusually, while Will and Sarah remain oblivious even as their paths cross, the identity of the killer is made clear to the reader early on, with interludes told from their point of view, a woman, overlooked in society, survivor of a brutal childhood which has shaped their worldview. Her father a violent, alcoholic thug, she has no patience for the patriarchy and the impositions it places on women.
Yet The Art of Dying is not merely about killing or saving the patient; it is about alleviating suffering, ensuring that those who must go are cared for emotionally and physically, as are those who are left behind, lessons the Simpson family already know but which Will and Sarah will be confronted with on the next stage of what, to the reader, might be termed their adventures, but which to them is only life engaged in the pursuit of delaying death.