Book review: Voices Of The Dead, by Ambrose Parry

Prepare to be mesmerised by the misdirection in this cleverly-plotted crime thriller set in Victorian Edinburgh, writes Louise Fairbairn

I have been a fan of this series since opener The Way Of All Flesh, and it was a pleasure to step back in time with Ambrose Parry – aka crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife, consultant anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman – once again. It’s now early 1853 and Edinburgh and its people are changing more rapidly than ever.

The prologue is short, but ominous. After it, there is a moment of mundanity to catch the breath and catch up on a little of what has happened since the last novel. Dr Will Raven is now married to Eugenie. They have a son, James – aged two and prone to tantrums – and a second child due any day now, but Raven is still struggling with fatherhood.

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Interrupting his musings, a summons comes from his old friend, Dr Henry Littlejohn. Raven is needed at Surgeon’s Hall; a professor is missing – and a severed foot has been found in the cupboard of his office… Discreet inquiries are needed if this is to be solved without calling in Detective McLevy.

Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre, aka Ambrose ParryMarisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre, aka Ambrose Parry
Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre, aka Ambrose Parry

Meanwhile, at 52 Queen Street – home and workplace of Professor James Young Simpson, Raven’s mentor and boss – assistant Sarah Fisher helps a woman in labour, neatly highlighting her growing medical experience as well as reminding us of her personal situation. She still chafes at learning so much with Simpson, yet not being allowed to train as a doctor; she will be forever a nurse, an assistant. This frustration both explains some of her actions in this novel and comes back to haunt her later.

That evening, Raven and Simpson accompany Simpson’s friend, theologian Rev Guthrie, to see a spiritualist performance from “The Great Kimble” at a nearby theatre. Meanwhile, Sarah accompanies Eugenie to a “scientific demonstration of mesmerism” (a form of hypnosis) by an American, Dr Harland Malham. Simpson thinks little of either practice, but Sarah wonders if, as mesmerism is so new, it may not yet be closed off to women.

More severed body parts are found, and McLevy, his bad temper and suspicious nature in full flow, is called in. Meanwhile, Malham’s demonstrations continue, increasing in audience size and the audacity of his actions each time.

Several characters are in put in peril as we race towards the final chapters and that prologue comes into play. However, there is a positive ending for some – others get exactly what they deserve.

As you might expect in a novel that shows how the lines between science and showmanship were blurred in this period, many people are not entirely who they say they are. But as you explore the grimier parts of Edinburgh and enjoy the dark humour, being slightly bamboozled becomes part of the ride.

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Crime fiction is all about misdirection, sleight of hand and mesmerism – hold the attention here to stop us wondering about there; with pacing, tension and teasing of story employed to stop our concentration flagging. It’s all on show here. If you’re already a fan, you’re in for a treat; if you’re not, allow yourself to be mesmerised for a few hours.

Voices Of The Dead, by Ambrose Parry, Canongate, £16.99

Ambrose Parry launch Voices Of The Dead at Portobello Bookshop on Wednesday 14 June at 7pm