Indulge me for a moment. It’s Edinburgh, 2020, and the tourists flying in from America, Australia and everywhere else Sky Atlantic sold the first series of The Way of All Flesh know exactly what they want to see. The Castle, obviously, Holyrood Palace if there’s time. First, though, they’ll want to check out 52 Queen Street. It doesn’t matter how many times they’re told it’s not open to the public, they still want to see it.
In Ambrose Parry’s series of crime novels on which the TV series is based – the first one came out in August 2018 with the promise of six or seven to follow – 52 Queen Street is more central to the plots than 221B Baker Street ever was to Sherlock Holmes. Housemaid Sarah Fisher and apprentice obstetrician Will Raven both live there, and although they’re both fictional, their employer was real enough. So too was the discovery he made there on 4 November, 1847. It didn’t quite banish pain from the world, but it came close.
Most Edinburghers have heard about James Simpson, who famously discovered the anaesthetic qualities of chloroform. If they weren’t born in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion, they’ll have seen the statue to him on West Princes Street Gardens or trams trundling past it with a huge picture of him painted on their sides. The rest of the world is about to catch up.
So far, admittedly, that TV series hasn’t yet been made, but as Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch bought the rights to Parry’s books last year and scripts are being written for Sky Atlantic right now, the chances are that it will happen. One industry source puts the odds of The Way of All Flesh making it to the screen as high as 80 per cent.
If you think those odds look over-optimistic, there’s something else I should tell you about Ambrose Parry. For one thing, he’s two people. One of them is Chris Brookmyre, the kind of writer who can win awards for his comic writing just as readily as for brilliantly plotted thrillers like Black Widow, winner of the inaugural McIlvanney Prize in 2016 for Scotland’s best crime novel. The Way of All Flesh is the first time he has attempted to write historical fiction.
The other is his wife Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist. Not only is this her first time writing a novel, but it’s practically the first time she has ever written fiction.
Already, I’m hooked - not just on The Way of All Flesh, but how it came into being.
“I’d never had the urge to write fiction,” says Marisa, sitting alongside her husband in the front room of their Bothwell home. “I just wanted to tell this one, particular story.” It had its roots in the dissertation she wrote in 2014 as part of an MSc in the history of science. She remains fascinated by the subject and what she came across while looking at the introduction of chloroform in Edinburgh’s maternity hospital in the wake of Simpson’s famous after-dinner experiment at his Queen Street home that November evening in 1847.
Unlike Brookmyre, she has always loved historical fiction, but even though the stories she uncovered in her research had to be dulled into academic prose, they tugged at her imagination. Those copperplate entries in the archives of Lothian Health Board - their tombstone-like leather-bound ledgers so much like the ones she could remember from her time at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary in the 1990s - contained some of them. Simpson’s house held a lot more.
Most Victorian doctors kept their family life and their surgery completely separate, she explains. But 52 Queen Street wasn’t like that. “There’d be a morning surgery at which the patients would spill out of the waiting room into the hallway, the children would have been running around the house, not kept out of sight in the attic nursery. And Simpson himself was such a warm character …”
“A proto-feminist,” nods Brookmyre. “And in a city like Edinburgh which is notorious for being so divided, he’s someone who interacted with all levels of society, so much so that there were 100,000 people lining the streets for his funeral. So even though when we started we had some doubts whether we could pull off this project, on the other hand, we could almost couldn’t understand why nobody seemed to have beaten us to it.”
They first started working together on the novel in January last year, although in the preceding couple of years Marisa had been on a course on historical fiction writing and accumulated a vast screed of notes, narrative non-fiction and fictionalised scenes. At first, they hadn’t intended to write a crime novel at all, but one that just looked at Will’s life as an apprentice and the professional temptations put in his way. It doesn’t sound a patch on the novel it has evolved into, in which Will attempts to bring a murderer to justice while dodging a street gang out to maim him.
“It was Marisa who realised that we were stopping ourselves making it a crime story for no good reason,” says Brookmyre, adding that his wife has always had a significant input into his work, not least coming up with the plot of his first novel, Quite Ugly One Morning, back in 1996.
Once they had worked out the tone of the novel and set it up as a crime story, it was easier to work out how to divide up the scenes between them, even though they each subsequently revised each the other’s work to iron out stylistic irregularities. Without her husband’s experience of having written a score of novels to fall back on, Marisa clearly appreciated having as much guidance as possible about what her scenes should contain.
“At times I’d say, ‘But where’s the story going?’ And Chris would say, ‘I don’t know yet!’ That would drive me crazy. I’d say, ‘How do you not know?’ ‘You’ll know when you write it,’ he’d say.”
So what’s the biggest thing writing your first novel has taught you? I ask.
“Patience. And to believe in what you’re doing because there will be times when you don’t. But Chris would just keep saying, ‘We’ll get to the end [of the scene] and then we’ll see what we’ve got.”
“That’s because,” he interjects, “when you get to the next stage you’ll know more. You’ll get a much better perspective on what you’ve already done.”
He tells me about a painting course Marisa took a few years. “The artist teacher said that to do watercolours you have to lose the image and then find it again.”
“Yes, and that did my head in,” says Marisa, laughing. “I mean, how can you possibly…?
“But that’s the difference between us when we’re writing,” says Brookmyre. “I don’t always know where we’re going, and it might come back into focus later, but you have to be prepared to lose the image. It’s the same thing.”
Maybe, I say, but if Marisa had taken that approach while she was working as a consultant anaesthetist, people would have died.
“Exactly,” she exclaims. “I’m a complete control freak. Because that’s the whole point of anaesthetics. If things get out of control, it can get very bad indeed. That’s why I like to plan everything, to have a Plan A, then if that doesn’t work a Plan B and a Plan C behind that.”
Somehow, out of that synthesis of two very different minds, has come a novel with the best of both. It takes you back to a time when Edinburgh was at the cutting edge of medicine and captures the excitement of scientific discovery, and shows the debt we all owe to James Young Simpson. All that, what looks like a budding romance, and murder most foul. Irresistible, no?
Chris Brookmyre & Marisa Haetzman are at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August. The Way of All Flesh is published by Canongate, price £14.99