“Steeped in period atmosphere” – The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

If you’re wondering about the author’s slightly unusual sounding name, at least in the present century, then you may not be surprised to learn that it is actually a pseudonym. Chris Brookmyre, who also writes crime fiction under his own name, and Dr. Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist, have collaborated to create a series of historical crime novels set in mid-nineteenth- century Edinburgh. The Art of Dying is the second of these. Since a lot of reference is made to what happened to the chief protagonists before the start of the book, it is necessary to talk also about the first novel in the series in order to put events into their proper context.

The plots revolve around Will Raven, a bright young medic and Sarah Fisher, a housemaid in the service of Professor James Young Simpson. As an obstetrician and the first physician to demonstrate the anaesthetic properties of chloroform, he was a significant figure in the world of medicine of his day. In The Way of All Flesh (2018) we first meet Raven as a student about to start his medical training with the eminent doctor. His drive to succeed in his chosen profession often makes Raven a victim of his own intelligence. When trying to solve problems his passion and eagerness is apt to allow him only to see what he wants to and blinds him to other notions which might help him achieve his aims. This trait makes him intensely fallible and, at the same time, very human. It also makes him a very likeable character even though he has a dark side. Sarah Fisher is smart. Her ability to think logically and calmly makes her a good match to Raven’s more impetuous nature. She wants so much to be a doctor, but being a woman of the Victorian Age she is prevented from fulfilling her dream by the social conventions of the era in which women are expected to be merely decorative objects. She sees her station in life as a kind of prison and is glad when Raven recognises her intelligence. When several young women die in gruesome circumstances Raven and Sarah set out to investigate what is happening in Edinburgh’s Old Town and find themselves drawn into the city’s dark underworld.

The Art of Dying is set three years later, in 1850. We learn that in the interim Will Raven has been travelling around Europe to further his training at medical institutions there and has returned to Edinburgh as a fully-fledged doctor to work as assistant to Dr. Simpson. As was not uncommon at the time, his employment also offers accommodation and so he lives under the same roof as his mentor, at Number 52 Queen Street, which is the actual address Simpson resided and practiced at in real life. Simpson is excited by his discovery of chloroform which allows patients to be operated on without pain. He even has his butler serve it at dinner, diluted in champagne, to observe its effects on Raven. The young doctor, on questioning his employer as to what is so ‘special’ about this particular champagne, only takes a sip before putting his glass down, saying he has work to do for which he needs a clear head. Thus, he evades being Simpson’s guinea pig when he tries out different ways to use chloroform.

The first part of the novel deals with the day-to-day life of the Simpson household, describing the daily routine of Simpson and Raven seeing patients, making house calls and other errands which take them out of the house and into town. We gain a real insight into the Edinburgh of 1850: the fog which shrouds the city for large parts of the winter, the different types of carriages seen on the streets, the sounds and smells and the signs of poverty and debauchery when they have to visit the Old Town.

“The Lawn Market was teeming. It was market day, stalls lining the street from the Esplanade to the Tron, as though the autumn harvest had been transported wholesale from the fields to the Old Town. Some people had obviously cracked open the ale casks early, or perhaps they had simply been drinking all night. ….. a fight broke out; they heard the crack of fist upon cartilage, saw blood spurting from a burst nose. Another combatant was cradling a broken arm.”

We also learn more about Sarah Fisher and her relationship with Raven. In The Way of All Flesh the two had begun to get close as they attempted to discover the reason why so many women were being murdered, but before departing for Europe Raven broke off with her, because he feared an affair with a housemaid would tarnish his professional reputation. Sarah had been heart-broken and so there is considerable unease between them when they meet again upon Raven’s return. Sarah has been promoted to an above stairs position, helping with patients and providing them with tea while they wait to be seen. She is now Mrs. Banks, having married another doctor. Raven is upset with himself that he has allowed his pride and the dictates of social expectations to get in the way of his love for Sarah.

A thread which runs through the novel is the story of an unnamed narrator told in her own voice. The daughter of an alcoholic father, she is sent away and relates her experiences of being bullied and ostracised by her peer group and ridiculed by her foster mother. The accounts appear to have little to do with the novel’s plot and it is only at the very end of the book that it becomes clear who the narrator is.

When Dr. Simpson is implicated in the unexplained death of a patient, curiosity to discover the cause and a desire to clear the eminent man’s name, force Sarah and Raven once more into playing detectives. More deaths follow, leading Raven to believe they might be due to a yet unknown disease. He already thinks of it as Raven’s Malady and dreams of how discovering its cause will make him famous and hasten his rise in the medical profession. The real reason for the deaths turns out to be far more shocking than anything they could have imagined.

“Louis XIV of France said that only the small man desires always to be right. It struck Raven that the route to discovery and knowledge lay not in the desire to be right, but in one’s preparedness to be wrong. Perhaps seeking proof that tested one’s contention was as important as garnering proof to support it. Only if the latter outweighed the former could one be certain of its soundness.”

Like the authors’ first collaborative novel, The Art of Dying is steeped in period atmosphere.

“He was familiar with Warnock’s Close from his schooldays not far from here. It was one of those places he knew to hurry past should his route take him this way. The passage was barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, the clogged channel in its centre wholly inadequate to draw the contents of soil buckets out to the street. The walls were buckled, the building on his right looking in danger of collapsing sideways into the equally creaking tenement on the other side.”

The pace of The Art of Dying is in keeping with the period in which it is set rather that the era in which it was written. Ambrose Parry’s novels strongly remind me of those by Robin Blake (set in Victorian Preston) and James McCreet (set in Victorian London). All are as enjoyable as Parry’s.

Any Cop?: If you like your crime novels to be fast-paced page-turners, then this one is possibly not for you, but if historical fiction and learning about topics you might not know much about sounds appealing, then The Art of Dying should definitely go onto your TBR pile.

 

Carola Huttmann

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