The Way of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry

In the winter of 1847, death walks the streets of Edinburgh taking the lives of lowly paupers in their hovels and the husbands, wives and children of the gentry in their warm houses in the New Town with as little discrimination, prostitutes and preachers alike; that is the way of all flesh, yet there is hope as medical science and chemistry progress from old wives’ tales and alchemy.

Young Will Raven has secured an appointment as apprentice to the renowned James Young Simpson, Professor of Midwifery, a position which will allow him to move from the lodgings of the sour Mrs Cherry and her lumpy porridge to a prestigious Queen Street townhouse, provided the agents of Mr Flint to whom he owes a substantial sum do not catch up with him first.

The debt incurred on behalf of a friend to whom he loaned the sum as a matter of urgency, Evie Lawson, a prostitute of whom Raven was also a client, she will not be repaying it to Raven, and nor will her death be investigated in a city of more pressing concerns than “another deid hoor,” her vacated room let out as soon as the body can be collected.

Unable to admit that he saw the body for fear that his reputation would be damaged and he would lose his position, Raven knows that Evie’s post-mortem condition was inconsistent with the dismissive explanation that she drank herself to death, and when another body is pulled from the Water of Leith displaying the same contortions he cannot help but believe there is a connection, whether it is malpractice or murder.

A medical mystery set in the romance of the streets of Victorian Edinburgh, it is a time of anticipation and exhilaration as discoveries are made in the sciences and reputations built or destroyed upon their success and application or their tragic failures, and also great poverty the Old Town south of the High Street, overcrowded and lacking in sanitation or adequate policing.

The city which gave birth to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great consulting detective, the name Ambrose Parry may be new to the crime thriller scene, but in a novel of misdirection, deception and false identity it should perhaps come as no surprise that this name is a pseudonym for Chris Brookmyre working in collaboration with consultant anaesthetist Doctor Marisa Haetzman – also coincidentally his wife – whose expertise informs the narrative.

The prose written in the formal style of the period and leaning towards the local dialect on occasion, it is far from a typical Brookmyre novel, more reserved and refined, the principal characters a class above those with whom Glasgow investigative journalist and perpetual trouble magnet Jack Parlabane will associate a century and a half later.

Like Brookmyre’s recent venture to outer space in Places in the Darkness, the often vulgar displays of outrageous humour which were the hallmark of his earlier novels is absent, but told from a medical perspective there is much graphic description of primitive treatments frequently more optimistic than effective in an age of obstructed labour, scrofula, consumption, ringworm and scabies.

As important as Raven is Simpson’s frustrated housemaid Sarah Fisher, with abundant curiosity but a dearth of free time to indulge it, recognising that even should she escape this life of servitude by catching the eye of a potential suitor it would only mean an upgrade of domestic duties to be the head of a household, not anything approaching a career despite being the intellectual match of the male peers automatically presumed to be her betters.

The pieces coming together, coincidences and parallels which form a pattern, the very basis of diagnosis, Will Raven and Sarah Fisher form a bond of uneasy trust rather than friendship to expose The Way of All Flesh, a novel as much about medical discovery and experimentation as it is about the characters discovering themselves and each other; in both, Ambrose Parry has so far only tantalisingly scratched the surface.

The Way of All Flesh is available from Canongate from 30th August



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