The action takes place in Victorian London following the Great Exhibition of 1851, but the roots of the story extend back to a terrible crime committed 20 years earlier in Edinburgh and that city’s celebrated repository of often macabre anatomical curios .
The Scottish capital in 1830 was still reeling from the trials of Burke and Hare, body snatchers were still abroad and any death among the poor and disregarded would cause a flurry of competition from anatomists and their henchmen, keen to grab a specimen, the younger and fresher the better, especially if it displayed deformities of special interest.
Back in 1851, the more genteel practice of making intricate wax models to illustrate the inner workings of the body is showcased at the Exhibition, but among the displays lies a very real, and freshly severed, hand.
The hero of these novels, apothecary Jem Flockhart, comes across the detached body part and his clinical description is liable to make the reader squirm: “I could see straight away that the hand before me had been neither torn nor roughly hacked from a body. There was no sawing, slicing or splintering, merely a neat and exact dismemberment.”
Flockhart wraps it up in newspaper, “like a piece of fried fish”, and takes it away in his pocket. His task is to discover who it belonged to and why it was placed on public view.
He encounters an array of different characters during his investigation, some from Georgian Edinburgh, others from Victorian London, but Thomson’s pen sketches of each one fixes them firmly in your mind.
For example: “Dr Cruikshank was a tall wiry Scotsman of some fifty years. His hair had retreated to the back of his head to expose a high, bulbous forehead, with features clustered above a small, weak chin.”
After that, it is impossible to confuse this doctor with any of the other medical men in the story, all of whom become suspected of foul deeds along the way.
Some characters are so deliciously, darkly gothic that I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or have screaming nightmares about them. Sorrow and Silence, the twins obsessed with cadavers – one deaf, one blind – are such a creation, as are Clenchie Kate and Thrawn-leggit Mary, the crippled beggars of the Cowgate.
If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, this one will almost certainly make you want to go back and read them, not least to discover how Jem ended up as an apothecary detective who hides his own secrets under his clothes. - Kirsty McLuckie
Surgeons’ Hall by ES Thomson, Constable, £16.99