by Ambrose Parry
‘The Reverend struck me again …… It was what happened when you ate filth.’
The Art of Dying reacquaints the reader with Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, protagonists of Ambrose Parry’s first novel, The Way of All Flesh. Now fully qualified, Raven returns to Edinburgh from a study tour of the Continent to be assistant to real life Professor James Simpson ***, the pioneer obstetrician. In the intervening two years, Sarah has been promoted from housemaid to ‘a helper’ in the practice. She looks after patients, consoles them and dispenses chloroform. She has also married Dr Archie Banks and is pregnant with his child.
Simpson is victim of a campaign by envious fellow surgeons to discredit him. A patient died and Simpson is being blamed. Sarah is determined to exonerate him and enlists Raven’s help. Raven, upset because he hadn’t the courage to marry Sarah when he had the chance – [His prejudices wouldn’t allow him to marry a housemaid!] – refuses. Discovering, however, that there is more to Sarah’s investigation that at first appeared, he joins her. More deaths are occurring around the city without obvious known cause. Because the patients’ symptoms are similar, Raven thinks he may have discovered a new disease that will make his name.
‘If I made a mistake, it was in killing four members of the same family. I can appreciate in retrospect how that might have seemed conspicuous.’
He is wrong. The investigation takes a new turn when Raven and Sarah suspect the cause of these deaths is more sinister than simple mistakes by a physician. A murderer is at large, a human killer with no apparent motive, and one whom no rational person would suspect, least of all the doctors.
Unaware of the danger they are risking, the couple follow the clues in the dark lanes and shabby closes of Edinburgh’s old town. But it is not only there that death is to be found. Could it be that this psychotic murderer might pursue his/her twisted objective in the New Town, at the practices and in the homes of the doctors themselves?
Sub plots in The Art of Dying abound. Raven’s past is held over him by Edinburgh gangster Flint who, from time to time, will demand medical ‘favours’ and whose sinister henchman are quite capable of extracting blood if the demands aren’t met. Before the end, the young doctor will find himself accused of murder.
‘Even if he succeeded, he knew he would be criticised for this. He thought of Dr Simpson, the scandal of the bloodstained mattress . . . . This mattress was going to be a thousand times worse.’
Meanwhile, a thief is at large in Professor Simpson’s chaotic Queen Street home. Simpson has employed a secretary, Quinton, to look after the paperwork and accounts. But can Quinton be trusted – or is it the cook or the new housemaid who is the culprit?
‘Sarah had devoured the book [Mrs Glassford] had given to her, A Vindication of the Rights of Women …… How well it had described the diminished lives accepted by even the most privileged women.’
Sarah’s position in Edinburgh society is unique. Encouraged by Simpson and by her husband Archie, she studies and learns as much as she can about medicine, though with little hope of ever being in a position to qualify. The universities and medical schools in Britain just do not admit women. With money, she might emulate the pioneering surgeons Charlotte Siebold and Elizabeth Blackwell ***, but that would mean Archie has to die . . . .
‘Raven heard a heavy thump of feet hitting the ground. It was the fellow he had christened ‘Gargantua’. He was by some distance the tallest man in Edinburgh but not proportionaely so ….’
The central plot for The Art of Dying is provided by an actual case in New England, which caused a sensation in North America in the late nineteenth century. Ambrose Parry weaves the rest of the story into it with skill and imagination. Whilst narrating mainly in third person from the points of view of Sarah and Raven, the authors spare a few chapters for the killer, allowing us a glimpse in first person of a deranged mind. It is a mind born of poverty and abuse, and one which few, if any, medical minds in 1849 could have comprehended.
All the other characters too, many of them real historical people, spring out of the pages, providing not only a satisfying murder mystery but an insight into the medical history of the period. The Art of Dying is not a traditional whodunnit, because the solution is evident early in the story. The tension and suspense is in not knowing what awaits us round every corner – literally and psychologically
The ending offers hope of further adventures of the main protagonists. The Art of Dying is one of those novels you really don’t want to end.
Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between journalist and novelist Chris Brookmyre and consultant anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman, a married couple who live in Scotland
*** James Young Simpson 1811-1870, the famous Scottish obstetrician, pioneered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic. He was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and made a baronet in 1866.
*** Charlotte Siebold 1788-1859 came from a medical family. She graduated with a medical degree in obstetrics from the University of Giessen in 1817 and as a practising doctor delivered both the future Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
*** Elizabeth Blackwell 1821-1910, born in Bristol, England, received her medical degree in New York in 1849, the first woman to do so in the USA. However, her involvement in what was considered in both America and Britain as ‘male territory’ was not always welcome.