A dead prostitute in Victorian Edinburgh discovered by a trainee doctor. Who decides to keep quiet. Great start.
He is then beaten up because he cannot pay his debts and arrives in his host's home a dreadful dirty mess. Then we meet the forthright housekeeper of the senior doctor's residence and the sleuthing pairing begins.
This is a book of great detail. The early chapters describe the social setting of Victoriana, which is very slow, before moving on to the medical aspects of the time, which is very gruesome. Both features are interesting of course, especially if the reader wishes to learn about this part of history. It shows a vivid slice of Victorian life, especially the standing of women, anesthetics and the idea of morality.
The apprentice doctor is specialising in obstetrics (a lot less messy than surgery) and deals mainly with the poor. He is concerned with their physical suffering during childbirth and the social suffering of unmarried women who find themselves pregnant. The dangerous and often fatal consequences the desperate women suffer is the mystery the trainee doctor and the feisty housemaid set out to discover.
There is a lot of discussion between the senior doctors about their research into anaesthetics with some risky experimentation thrown in. Their language, and the tone of the whole book, is attempting to be authentic for a Victorian novel. The vocabulary is slightly elevated but not too much as to disrupt the flow. This adds to the Victorian atmosphere as much as the dark alleyways the young doctor finds himself drawn to, despite being a little cliched.
It is easy to forget that the number of dead women in the story indicates that this is a crime to solved, and not a study in the development of anaesthesia. Which the book essentially is. It is a good read nonetheless: unusual topic, well written, sound characters with a theme of hypocrisy, typical of Victorian attitudes. This is emphasised by the quote 'The only difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage' highlighting the paradox of medical progress.
This is a debut novel by Ambrose Parry and clearly shows great potential for a series. The sequel, The Art of Dying, will be published on 29 August 2019. Watch this space.
Published by Canongate Books UK, May 2019. (Original publication August 2018.) Buy the latest books set in the nineteenth century.
Advanced review copy supplied by the publishers.
Related: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, The Anarchists' Club by Alex Reeve, The Liverpool Nightingales by Kate Eastham