Canongate Books|29 August 2019|416 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*
Last year one of my favourite books was The Way of all Flesh by Ambrose Parry (the pseudonym of crime fiction author, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist). The Art of Dying is its sequel, continuing the story of Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. Once more this is a combination of historical fact and fiction; the social scene, historical and medical facts slotting perfectly into an intricate murder mystery. Beginning in Berlin in 1849 with a dramatic scene, as Will Raven is attacked by three masked men, it is mainly set in 1850 in Edinburgh, when a mysterious illness baffles doctors, who are unable to identify the disease, let alone cure their patients.
Will Raven, now a qualified doctor has returned from studying in Europe to take up the post of assistant to Dr James Simpson, who was Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University. Still in love with Sarah, he yearns to be re-united with her, but Will is dismayed to find that she had married during his absence. She was formerly Dr Simpson’s housemaid. Now she is an unqualified nurse, helping with Dr Simpson’s patients in the clinic he runs from his house. But when Dr Simpson is blamed for the death of a patient in suspicious circumstances, Sarah and Will join forces to clear his name. In doing so they uncover more unexplained deaths. Will thinks he may have discovered a new illness when he finds that four members of the same family in a wealthy area of the city have died within two weeks.
Sarah’s has her own problems as she is keen to be more than Dr Simpson’s assistant, but is hampered by the limited choices that women had, and she battles for more equality. There is so much packed into this novel. As well as a feminist theme with its strong female characters, it focuses on medical advances and practices, including the use of chloroform and the ethics and the dilemmas that presented. It also highlights the differences between the affluent professional classes and the poor working class. And it is an intriguing medical murder mystery, with several sub-plots and a wide cast of characters.
I really liked the setting, giving a great sense of place and full of atmosphere that adds to the tension and suspense of the murder mystery. I also liked the way the narrative is interrupted by short passages in the first person giving glimpses into the mind of a murderer – based on a real 19th century figure – and gradually the identity of this person becomes apparent. The Art of Dying is a well written and complex novel with credible characters, some based on real historical people and using nineteenth century textbooks reflecting the medical thinking of the period.
I loved The Art of Dying and I’m hoping there will be a third book as I really want to know what happens next to Will and Sarah. Although I think it is perfectly possible to read this as a standalone novel, I recommend reading The Way of All Flesh, focusing on Dr Simpson’s discovery of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform, before reading The Art of Dying.
A Note From the Publisher
Many thanks to Canongate Books for an e-book review copy via NetGalley.