*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author, NetGalley and Canongate Books. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: There’s a fine line between kill and cure.
Edinburgh, 1849. Despite Edinburgh 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 both an excellent Victorian medical murder mystery, and an educational and entertaining treatise on the talents and restrictions of intelligent women of the age.
I haven’t read The Way of All Flesh (although I certainly want to now!), but that didn’t hinder me from picking up the characters and story here as I went along. The only slight effect I noticed on this book is that it starts with Will Raven in Italy – fighting off assailants, bantering merrily with his friend and enjoying the company of a ladyfriend – clearly in reasonable spirits despite past and current events. I can only presume whether this is the Raven met in the previous book, because most of this story is set after his return to Edinburgh and the sarcastic roisterer is completely subsumed by a morose and pompous man struggling to reconcile his love for a remarkable woman with her lowly position in life. He does not come out well in comparison to Archie Banks on this matter!
Sarah Fisher, said remarkable woman, fares much better in reader estimations. She keeps her focus firmly on her patients, the doctors she supports and her family responsibilities; still finds time to aid other women with their health and domestic concerns; and keeps a tight hold on her own hopes and dreams throughout, always open to an opportunity for more from life. Which all makes her the perfect counterpoint to the murderer.
We, the readers, get an insider glimpse into the murderer’s thoughts and past, via excerpts from a written account that features later in the plot. As a result, the identity of the murderer, and even their motives, are less the focus of the mystery than the question of whether Raven and Sarah will be able to resolve the matter without either of them being hurt, embarrassed, or imprisoned.
The historical medical information presented throughout the book – specifically the information related to anaesthetic and obstetrics – is fascinating and clearly well-researched by the authors. I could definitely read more Raven and Fisher books just for this aspect alone, so engrossing were the insights presented. Conversely, I was less fond of the romantic aspects of the story, as I strongly feel Sarah deserves better than Raven – not because of his self-confessed ‘monstrous person’ doubts, but due to his adherence to status above all, despite (or perhaps because of) his own lack of it.
Fans of historical mystery fiction will enjoy this well-written and thought-provoking series. I’m off to catch up the previous book, in preparation for the next one!
‘And once again, here I am, in your company in the bloody aftermath of a fight.’
‘Maybe you are the one who courts mayhem and you are merely fortunate to have me on hand to assist. Have you thought of it that way?’
‘Not once. But often have I said you’d be the death of me.’
Raven searched his memory.
‘You have never once said that.’
‘No,’ he admitted, ‘but I must have thought it. So please prove me wrong. And don’t forget to wash the knife.’
– Ambrose Parry, The Art of Dying
Ambrose Parry is the pen name for husband and wife Chris Brookmyre (known mostly for his crime novels) and Dr Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist. It is the latter’s interest in medical history that lead to their first collaboration, The Way of All Flesh.