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Book Review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

The Way of All Flesh is Ambrose Parry’s first novel in what is hoped will become a series. And it’s off to a very promising start here, making the most of being set against the backdrop of such an exciting time for medicine in a city known for its medical pioneers.

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

In the city’s Old Town a number of young women have been found dead, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. Across the city in the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.

Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.

With each having their own motive to look deeper into the city’s spate of suspicious deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

The Way of All Flesh features real-life medical pioneers, most notably James Young Simpson, in whose house its two main characters and amateur detectives live and work. And, while the latter may be fictional, they both feel as if they could have existed. Their pairing gives the investigation access to wider society than either would have alone and the book’s all the richer for that.

Will Raven is Simpson’s latest medical apprentice and Sarah Fisher his housemaid, who assists at some of the clinics run out of Simpson’s house. They’re both looking to better themselves but, as Sarah is all too aware, it’s easier for Raven to do so than it is for her. Not only does her position in the household seem precarious but she would suffer more from its loss thanks to her sex and status.

Ambrose Parry uses Raven and Sarah’s differing experience of the city and its society to explore the Edinburgh of The Way of All Flesh. Just as Raven and Sarah remain wary of each other, this often feels as if it’s not one but two cities rubbing along together, not always happily either. There are the physical boundaries of the New Town and the Old Town, the port and the centre, the university and the closes, along with others such as progress and stagnation, science and exploitation, doing no harm and doing whatever it takes to get ahead, rich and poor, male and female, and within those every degree from gentleman and lady to labourer and maid, from property owner to tenement dweller, and from marriageable prospect to prostitute.

Ambrose Parry combines this rich medical history, real life characters with fictional, and a city divided but alive with possibility and intrigue in The Way of All Flesh. The result is a heady mix of charismatic characters who I happily championed and want to meet again, a devious and disturbing mystery, nocturnal call-outs and encounters with henchmen, humble beginnings and wretched ends, unrepentant reprobates and opportunistic moneylenders, and reckless carriage rides. Take a first dose of this vibrant new historical crime fiction today; the only likely side effect is that you’ll soon crave the next fix.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry is published by Canongate. It’s out today as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive and support your local independent bookshop instead. Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym for a collaboration between bestselling author Chris Brookmyre and consultant anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman. You can follow them in this guise on Twitter.

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

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