The Way Of All Flesh begins, as so many hackneyed crime novels have done before, with a man standing over the dead body of a young female prostitute; “just another deid hoor” as a character remarks later. But we also begin with a young man’s fear, guilt and sadness, and an apology from a narrator for beginning thus, both neatly subverting the cliché. We also begin with a scene of Edinburgh’s Old Town in 1847 described so richly we feel the chill of Evie’s corpse and smell the middens that medical student Will Raven picks his way through after leaving the building.
The Old Town is a harsh place of sly violence – Raven, who has a past he is keen to conceal, is reminded of a debt with a knife-slash to the face – in comparison with the genteel New Town he arrives in the next day to begin his apprenticeship with Dr James Young Simpson, whose household includes Sarah Fisher, a maid with strong ideas. And so the scene is set for a novel of divisions and opposites befitting its Edinburgh setting – the home of gentleman-cum-burglar Deacon Brodie.
This duality also suits the author – one name, but two people: Ambrose Parry is crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife, consultant anaesthetist and medical historian Marisa Haetzman. The Way Of All Flesh is planned as the first in a series, and they are off to a flying start, as the novel marries a forensic attention to historical and medical detail with masterful plotting and pacing. We see through Raven’s eyes as he and Dr Simpson use ether, newly discovered, to help women in labour, and the student finds out how many ailments can be squeezed into the doctor’s waiting room. We also see the world through the eyes of Sarah, chafing at the roles she is forced into by society.
Dr Simpson’s specialism is obstetrics and as he and Raven attend cases, we get an unflinching look at the realities of pregnancy and labour for women of all classes in an era of still primitive medicine – though Dr Simpson’s quest for a substitute for ether, culminating in the testing of chloroform after dinner one night, are a lighthearted delight.
Meanwhile, Raven’s fellow medic Henry tells him of an “unconscionable butcher” who has left at least two women dead in identical fashion – is a serial killer at large? And what is the link with the mysterious “French midwife”?
There are plenty of brutal medical scenes in these pages, but also moments to raise a smile: Raven and Sarah’s delightfully awkward interactions; the pomposity of another medic; the secret of a misogynist preacher.
In the later chapters, duplicity is replaced by unmasking: Raven’s secrets are unearthed; our serial killer and his collecting habits are revealed – and the punishment for him made me laugh out loud at its perfection.
The Way Of All Flesh is a fine tonic, and Ambrose Parry a welcome fresh voice.
The Way Of All Flesh, by Ambrose Parry, Canongate, £14.99