April 23, 2019

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Victorian Scottish thriller bloody good

Doctors in 1847 Edinburgh are desperately trying to develop anesthetics to end the agony of surgery and to ease childbirth — male doctors, of course, because while a handful of women marry well, the rest exist only to serve men and know their place.

And maybe some researchers go beyond their labs and beakers of chemicals, and experiment on prostitutes who die in excruciating, grotesque contortions.

Scottish author Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh is a crackerjack though difficult class-based mystery, sleuthed by a young doctor — could he be hiding personal secrets? — and a housemaid tempted to rise above her station just because she’s the smartest person in the manor.

Medical student Will Raven gets an awesome break when he’s taken on as an intern by a renowned doctor, who lives in the best part of town and seems in an excellent position to cater to the wealthy.

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Doctors in 1847 Edinburgh are desperately trying to develop anesthetics to end the agony of surgery and to ease childbirth — male doctors, of course, because while a handful of women marry well, the rest exist only to serve men and know their place.

And maybe some researchers go beyond their labs and beakers of chemicals, and experiment on prostitutes who die in excruciating, grotesque contortions.

Scottish author Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh is a crackerjack though difficult class-based mystery, sleuthed by a young doctor — could he be hiding personal secrets? — and a housemaid tempted to rise above her station just because she’s the smartest person in the manor.

Medical student Will Raven gets an awesome break when he’s taken on as an intern by a renowned doctor, who lives in the best part of town and seems in an excellent position to cater to the wealthy.

Raven is keeping to himself that he’s a tad short of funds — one must, of course, trust his CV and accept as given that he comes from the right kind of family, being a gentleman and all — and is in debt to a vicious loan shark and his band of scoundrels.

His renowned mentor has the annoying habit of treating the poor and waving away any kind of payment. The doctor is also an early proponent of the use of ether as an anesthetic, a huge controversy among the medical upper classes in 1847.

Raven concurrently has seen evidence that prostitutes and impoverished women are dying in horrendous pain — possibly pregnant, maybe seeking abortions — but as the lowest classes, they don’t draw the attention of anyone in authority.

Coming into the doctor’s home, Raven is thrown into conflict immediately with a lowly housemaid, Sarah Fisher, who’s unacceptably feisty after being allowed to work as a receptionist in the doctor’s clinic.

She reads chemistry books late at night when her toils are done, and sometimes helps patients more than a receptionist who knows her place should.

Raven and Fisher despise each other on sight — golly, that never leads to... no, wait, it couldn’t be...

The Way of All Flesh is not an easy read. There are surgeries without anesthetic, difficult childbirths at a time when the mother’s survival was often in peril, back-street abortions and violence and poverty everywhere. There are pages you’ll want to read while squinting.

Anyone who’s been to Edinburgh will recognize the alleys and cobblestone streets and grand buildings that were already old when Raven hit town.

Parry, to use a cliché, brings 1847 Edinburgh to life. The "author" is in fact two people, the Glasgow couple of medical history researcher Dr. Marisa Haetzman and novelist Chris Brookmyre.

The two prove that while married couples may not survive wallpapering together, they can write an amazing book.

Retired Free Press reporter Nick Martin is sure contemporary Edinburgh medical care is top-notch, but be extra careful on those cobblestones anyway.


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