The Way of All Flesh
by Ambrose Parry
Occasionally, a walk through a bookshop will throw up unexpected delights.
Browsing the new and bestseller shelves in my local shop recently, I was surprised to see a book entitled The Way of All Flesh. I immediately thought of Samuel Butler, and wondered why on earth his posthumously published novel from 1903 should be here in this section. As I hadn’t read the book, I picked it up out of curiosity only to discover it wasn’t Butler’s work at all. And what a find!
‘Raven laid a hand on he arm and quickly withdrew it. The cold was a shock, though it shouldn’t have been. He was no stranger to handling a corpse, but seldom one whose touch he had known when warm.’
I hadn’t heard of Ambrose Perry and don’t suppose many of you will have either. A look inside the rear cover informed me that Ambrose Perry is not one author but two, a couple from Glasgow, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Brookmyre is apparently a novelist in his own right (though not known to me). Haetzman is a consultant anaesthetist with a master’s degree in the history of medicine.
The Way of All Flesh is a hybrid of historical fiction and murder mystery. Set in Edinburgh in 1847, it is the story of Will Raven, a student doctor about to embark on an apprenticeship with renowned obstetrician and pioneer surgeon James Young Simpson. Raven is keen to escape his past in a profession with prospects. Having already been through university, he is on the eve of his taking up the appointment when he finds a prostitute friend, Evie, dead in her flat. Later, after a few drinks with a fellow student, he is set upon and badly beaten by two thugs. He has injudiciously borrowed some money to help Evie and is quite unable to pay it back.
Patched up, but still obviously beaten, Raven makes a bad impression on Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s housemaid, a smart, ambitious young woman who, in addition to her other duties, helps the doctor as a sort of triage nurse, assessing which of his patients are in most need of attention. As well as Simpson’s family, incluing his sister-in-law Mina [I don’t know if she is fictional or not], his household includes several other medical practitioners, both occasional and semi-permanent. They are Dr James Mathews Duncan [real], Dr George Keith [also real] and Dr John Beattie [surely fictional].
Evie’s is the first of a series of unexplained and bizarre deaths of young women. Another – Rose, also a housemaid – is an acquaintance of Sarah, and she and Raven suspect a murderous connection.
‘Long after the footsteps and voices had receded, she and Raven remained motionless, their faces barely inches apart, hardly breathing. The intent look in Raven’s eyes became something else, their gazes locked upon one another. She felt unaccustomed stirrings in unaccustomed places.’
Sarah is eager to protect Mina from the attentions of Dr Beattie, whom she suspects of being a gold-digger. Raven, meantime, is taking every precaution to avoid the murderous cronies of moneylender Mr Flint. They form what seems an unlikely alliance to discover what really happened to the dead women. Were they pregnant and, if so, were their deaths the result of mishandled abortions? Or could it be that they were deliberately killed and, if so, why?
‘Among the detritus on the floor, beneath the mahogany table, were the lifeless bodies of three men: Simpson, Keith, and one he did not recognise. A fourth, James Duncan, was slumped face-down on the table, a single bottle open in front of him next to a folded cloth. Raven cursed the man. In his blasted quest for a place in history, he had killed them all.’
The trail leads the pair from the respectable salons of Edinburgh’s New Town into the dark underworld of the Old, a place of dark alleys and sweaty taverns, but also the home of its university, at the cutting edge (literally) of advances in medical science. A killer is on the loose and he (or she) could just as easily be an inhabitant of the former as of the latter. Perhaps it’s the mysterious Madame Anchou who stalks the streets of Edinburgh and Leith, providing ‘relief’ (for a price) to ‘fallen’ girls anxious to be relieved of an unwanted burden. Perhaps, like the notorious Deacon Brodie, the culprit is a villain of the night masquerading as a respectable citizen by day. Maybe it’s the dentist, or the hell-fire preacher. Or maybe it’s none of these.
As Raven and Sarah get nearer to the truth, not only do they risk losing their jobs but their very lives. Tracking the murderer to his lair is one thing, but having done so are they likely to become victims too? A nail-biting climax and an unexpected piece of poetic justice bring this clever ‘who-done-it’ to a satisfying conclusion.
The Way of All Flesh mixes high drama and the excitement of the chase with historical fact. Simpson and his associates are searching for a means of pain relief which does not carry the dangers of ether. 1847 is the year in which they find it – chloroform! It has already been tested on animals, but its effect on humans is unknown. Is this strange substance about to become the holy grail of anaesthetics?
‘Raven helped Spiers take his rest against a barrel. The patch of red was widening by the second. He and Sarah shared a look …. they both knew he had little time left.’
The authors cleverly connect the elements of plot, subplot, character and history and wind them into a believable story. Simpson is portrayed as something of an eccentric, a driven genius with a social conscience; Duncan as an arrogant and insufferable social climber; Professor Syme, Simpson’s professional rival at the university is a severe, ill-tempered ‘sawbones’. The fictional Raven and Sarah, typical of their generation, fit into this world very well, where birth and gender usually determine social standing and prospects. Both appear to find a sympathetic ally in Dr Simpson. When Sarah expresses a desire to become a nurse, he tells her that all she’d be doing would be washing floors and emptying bedpans.
‘…. What is the point of learning that which I cannot put into practice?’ [she says], ‘My status would be that of the best-read housemaid in the city.’
Simpson’s reply is hopeful and prophetic:
‘It may not always be thus. And if things are ever to be different, it will take women like you to change them.’
I highly recommend The Way of All Flesh to lovers of historical fiction, crime novels and medical history, and for its glimpse into the social injustices of old Edinburgh.