A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

Canongate Books| 19th August 2021| 405 pages| Review Copy| 5*

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical series starring Will Raven & Sarah Fisher, set in 19th century Edinburgh. I loved the other books, The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying and A Corruption of Blood is equally as good, if not better.

Description

Edinburgh. This city will bleed you dry.

Dr Will Raven is a man seldom shocked by human remains, but even he is disturbed by the contents of a package washed up at the Port of Leith. Stranger still, a man Raven has long detested is pleading for his help to escape the hangman.

Back at 52 Queen Street, Sarah Fisher has set her sights on learning to practise medicine. Almost everyone seems intent on dissuading her from this ambition, but when word reaches her that a woman has recently obtained a medical degree despite her gender, Sarah decides to seek her out.

Raven’s efforts to prove his erstwhile adversary’s innocence are failing and he desperately needs Sarah’s help. Putting their feelings for one another aside, their investigations will take them to both extremes of Edinburgh’s social divide, where they discover that wealth and status cannot alter a fate written in the blood.

Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym of crime fiction author, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist. Will is a doctor working with Doctor James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery, who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform (a real historical character), and Sarah, is the Simpsons’ housemaid, but she now assists Professor Simpson and is studying medicine. The two of them have a complicated and somewhat spiky relationship, which continues in this novel.

The combination of a crime fiction writer and an anaesthetist works excellently in Ambrose Parry’s novels. The research into the history of medicine is extensive, making this book a combination of historical fact and fiction, a tale of murder and medical matters, with the social scene, historical and medical facts slotting perfectly into an intricate murder mystery. 

The mystery begins when the body of a baby wrapped in a parcel, is found floating in the Forth. The child had been strangled with a length of white tape. Sarah meanwhile is involved in finding a missing child. When Sir Ainsley Douglas, a prominent and wealthy member of Edinburgh society is found dead from arsenic poisoning, Will reluctantly gets involved in the murder investigation. How the mysteries interlink gradually becomes clear and although I soon realised how Sir Ainsley had been murdered, I was puzzled about who did it and was completely taken by surprise when the culprit was revealed.

Like all good historical fiction, this book weaves together fact and fiction. The Historical Note at the end of the book sorts out what was real and what was invented. The subjects covered include details about infectious diseases, the difficulties women experienced in obtaining a medical degree, and crimes children suffered in the 19th century. I think A Corruption of Blood is an exceptionally excellent murder mystery and an informative historical novel, with great period detail and convincing characters. I look forward to reading more books by Ambrose Parry.

Books Read in August 2021

August was a busy month for me and it didn’t leave much time for reading or writing reviews! But I did read 5 books, and as both Framley Parsonage (684 pages) and Dead Tomorrow (663 pages) are very long books, it took me over half of August to read just those two!

  1. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope 4* – see my review
  2. The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant 4*
  3. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray 3*
  4. Dead Tomorrow by Peter James 3*
  5. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch 4*

The only book I reviewed was Framley Parsonage. So, before I begin September’s books here are just a few brief thoughts on the other 4 books.

The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant – historical fiction with a dual timeline set in 1584 and 2021. I read this quickly drawn along by the plot and keen to know the links between the two main characters, Mathilde in the present day and Tom in the 16th century. I was more interested in Tom’s story. He is deaf and dumb, but he can lip read. He is an apothecary and also a spy, working for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, during the period leading up to the Babbington Plot. Mathilde has inherited a medieval mansion, Lutton Hall, and she is surprised to find that she has family there she had never heard of before. The two timelines interlink as Mathilde discovers the secrets hidden at Lutton Hall.

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray. Crowd behaviour fascinates me, so I hoped this book would cast some light on the subject – it certainly did. There are sections on sexuality, gender, technology and race, including a chapter on transgender, which I found the most enlightening. The synopsis describes how Murray “reveals the astonishing new culture wars playing out in our workplaces, universities, schools and homes in the names of social justice, identity politics and ‘intersectionality’.” Some of it I found shocking and infuriating.

Dead Tomorrow by Peter James – the 5th book in his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series. Grace and his team investigate the deaths of three teenagers found by a dredger at the bottom of the English Channel, which leads them to a gang of human traffickers operating from Eastern Europe. Parallel with their investigation a desperate mother is fighting for her daughter’s life. One of the things I like about the Roy Grace series is the continuing story of Grace’s personal life. But what I find irritating is the way Peter James describes what all his characters are wearing and the details of all the little details of their surroundings. And this book in particular is far too long and drawn out.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, the second Rivers of London novel. I loved the first book, Rivers of London. These are fast-paced police procedurals of a very different kind – urban fantasy, set in the real world of London, a mix of reality and the supernatural. You could probably read them as standalones, but I really think it’s best to read them in order to get the full background to what is going on and what has already happened to the main characters.

DC Peter Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale (who is the last wizard in England) as part of a special and secret branch of the Met, dealing with all things magical and supernatural. Moon Over Soho begins with the murder of Cyrus Wilkinson, a part-time jazz saxophonist, who had apparently dropped dead of a heart attack just after finishing a gig in a Soho jazz club. Peter can hear music coming from his corpse. What follows is a complicated story full of twists and turns, humour, and some gruesome and unusual murders.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Today I’m featuring The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It’s set in Amsterdam in 1686/7. Nella Oortman marries a rich merchant, but life in her new home is unfulfilled. Even her cabinet house brings a mystery to the secretive world she has entered as the lifelike miniatures somehow start eerily foreshadowing her fate.

I watched the TV series a few years ago and thought I’d like to read the book – just getting round to reading it!

The Old Church, Amsterdam: Tuesday 14th January 1687

The funeral was supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are like water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

In daylight, it now seems ridiculous, but the rules of this house are written in water. I must either sink or swim, Nella thinks. Her bruise, day-old, like a small splash of wine, truly hurts when she presses it.

I was struck by the use of water imagery in both these extracts.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week my book is one of the books I’m currently reading, The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant, a dual time period novel set in Elizabeth England in 1584 and in the present day.

June 2021

The loud noise as she exhaled sharply, a violent ‘pssw’ of air and spittle, echoed around the almost empty, cavernous border control area. A cathedral of modern age, welcoming all to its hallowed halls. Or possibly not all, Mathilde thought as she stood before the sour faced man in front of her. Incongruously, behind him a dusty sign announced: ‘Welcome to England’.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Page 56, set in 1584 :

Tom shuddered as what Hugh had explained, sank in. Being at court had felt like an honour but the memory of fleeing to France when his adopted father fell foul of the monarch reminded him of exactly how precarious it could be.

From Amazon:

1584: Elizabeth I rules England. But a dangerous plot is brewing in court, and Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.

There’s only one thing standing in her way: Tom, the queen’s trusted apothecary, who makes the perfect silent spy…

2021: Travelling the globe in her campervan, Mathilde has never belonged anywhere. So when she receives news of an inheritance, she is shocked to discover she has a family in England.

Just like Mathilde, the medieval hall she inherits conceals secrets, and she quickly makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago? And will she finally find a place to call home?

Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen

Lake Union| February 2020| 323 pages| 3*

A single twist of fate puts a servant girl to work in Queen Victoria’s royal kitchen, setting off a suspenseful, historical mystery by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and The Victory Garden.

Arriving as Helen Barton from Yorkshire, she pursues her passion for creating culinary delights, served to the delighted Queen Victoria herself. Best of all, she’s been chosen to accompany the queen to Nice. What fortune! Until the threat of blackmail shadows Bella to the Riviera, and a member of the queen’s retinue falls ill and dies.

Having prepared the royal guest’s last meal, Bella is suspected of the poisonous crime. An investigation is sure to follow. Her charade will be over. And her new life will come crashing down—if it doesn’t send her to the gallows.

Set towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1896/7 I thought this sounded interesting when I read the synopsis on NetGalley, and it is. It’s a pleasant easy read, but rather far-fetched.

The novel is based on facts to a certain extent. Rhys Bowen’s Historical Note explains that many aspects of the story are true, including the details about Abdul Karim, the Queen’s Indian Munshi. The Hotel Regina Excelsior above Nice was built for Queen Victoria – she had a separate wing with its own entrance – and she took a team of her cooks with her when she visited each winter.

I thought the beginning of the book was slow and predictable, and there are a few convenient coincidences. Isabella (Bella) Waverley’s father was a member of an aristocratic family, the second son of a second son, who fell on hard times and eventually died an alcoholic. Bella had gone into service and found she had a talent for baking. So when she had the opportunity to take Helen Barton’s position as an under cook at Buckingham Palace, she presented herself as Helen at the Palace. Keeping her real identity a secret was a problem that continued through the book, providing an element of suspense. Then when one of the Queen’s German relatives died, Bella is suspected of poisoning him, and I enjoyed the intrigue and the puzzle of who killed the Count.

Overall I did find the book entertaining. I enjoyed reading about the meals the Queen Victoria’s household were served and the settings both in Buckingham Palace and in the French Riviera are beautifully described. Compared to the slow start the ending is packed with action and romance as well as mystery.

With thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for my review copy.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week my book is Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge, a novel about the four days of Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage in 1912.

15th April 1912

He said, ‘Save yourself if you can,’ and I said firmly enough, though I was trembling and clutching at straws, ‘I intend to. Will you stand at my side?’ To which he replied, ‘Remember, Morgan, not the height, only the drop, is terrible.’ Then he walked away, gait unsteady, the cord of his robe trailing the deck.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Page 56 – 57:

Since I was nineteen my uncle had been trying to fix me up with employment. How often had I heard him thunder that it was the duty of the wealthy to work? A poor man without a job, he held, was less despicable than a rich man who became idle.

Morgan is the nephew of J.P. Morgan the American financier.

From Amazon:

For the four fraught, mysterious days of her doomed maiden voyage in 1912, the Titanic sails towards New York, glittering with luxury, freighted with millionaires and hopefuls. In her labyrinthine passageways the last, secret hours of a small group of passengers are played out, their fate sealed in prose of startling, sublime beauty, as Beryl Bainbridge’s haunting masterpiece moves inexorably to its known and terrible end.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring one of my library books, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘The simplest thing would be to tear it down,’ the man said. ‘ The house is a shambles.’

Barbara Kingsolver, who has been one of my favourite authors ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible and these opening sentences certainly drew me into the book.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Page 56:

Willa’s mother had always promised Tig would ‘settle out’, but she hadn’t survived to see it, and now Willa wondered who among them would live long enough to stop being flabbergasted by the girl.

Set in Vineland, New Jersey, this is a dual timeline novel, about two families living in the same house – one in the present century and the other in the nineteenth.

From Amazon:

Meet Willa Knox, a woman who stands braced against a world which seems to hold little mercy for her and her family – or their old, crumbling house, falling down around them. Willa’s two grown-up children, a new-born grandchild, and her ailing father-in-law have all moved in at a time when life seems at its most precarious. But when Willa discovers that a pioneering female scientist lived on the same street in the 1800s, could this historical connection be enough to save their home from ruin? And can Willa, despite the odds, keep her family together?

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

I read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris in June, but as I was on a roll, reading but not reviewing books I’ve only just got round to writing about it. I loved it, one of my TBRS, a hardback book I bought in 2016. I’d heard of the Dreyfus affair but knew very little about it.

In his Author’s Note Harris writes that his aim in writing this novel was to ‘retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair‘, describing it as ‘perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history, which in the 1890s came to obsess France an ultimately the entire world‘. What follows is a chillingly dark, and realistic novel of conspiracy and espionage.

The book begins in Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand.

It’s narrated by Colonel George Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section of the French Army, who became convinced that Dreyfus was innocent. But Picquart is told by his superiors to drop his investigation. Despite that he doesn’t and ends up losing his position and being relocated to North Africa, where he was assigned a dangerous mission. Eventually he was dismissed from the Army whilst Dreyfus remained imprisoned on Devil’s Island under the most appalling conditions. Dreyfus was released from prison in 1899 but was only exonerated in 1906.

What gives An Officer and a Spy such authenticity is that Harris has used transcripts of the various trials, inquiries and hearings, biographies, family letters as well as Dreyfus’s own writings in writing his novel. He goes into meticulous detail in staying accurate to the actual events, but even so this is a gripping book and I was completely absorbed by it from start to finish.

Robert Harris is one of my favourite writers and I have yet to read a book of his that disappointed me, but this book surpassed my expectations, and is one of his best in my opinion.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Harper Collins| 18 March 2021| 645 pages| 3*

1940, Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Three very different women are recruited to the mysterious Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes.

Vivacious debutante Osla has the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses – but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, working to translate decoded enemy secrets. Self-made Mab masters the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and the poverty of her East-End London upbringing. And shy local girl Beth is the outsider who trains as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts.

1947, London.

Seven years after they first meet, on the eve of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, disaster threatens. Osla, Mab and Beth are estranged, their friendship torn apart by secrets and betrayal. Yet now they must race against the clock to crack one final code together, before it’s too late, for them and for their country.

My Thoughts:

I have very mixed thoughts about The Rose Code. On the one hand it’s just the sort of book I love – historical fiction with a thrilling story and interesting characters that kept me wanting to read on and yet also made me want it to last as long as possible. On the other hand, it’s unevenly paced, with a slow start and a rushed ending that was somewhat of an anti-climax. My favourite character was Beth and I enjoyed reading how her character developed from a shy down trodden young woman into a brilliant cryptanalyst.

But when I first began reading it earlier this year I stopped after the opening pages and only picked it up again a couple of weeks or so ago. I initially stopped as the storyline involving Prince Philip made me very uncomfortable – Prince Philip was still alive when this book was written and when I first started to read it. He died in April this year.

The book begins in 1947 as Osla Kendall, a journalist working for the Tatler, is wondering what to wear for the Royal Wedding. She is in a ‘foul mood‘ as she wonders what to wear to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

Historical fiction mixes fact and fiction with both real and imaginary characters and I don’t have a problem with that. The character of Osla Kendall is based on a real person – in her Author’s Note Kate Quinn writes that she is ‘lightly fictionalized from the real-life Osla Benning, a beautiful, effervescent, Canadian-born heiress and Hut 4 translator who was Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend.‘ But by the time of the Royal Wedding Osla Benning was already married, not pining after Prince Philip. In writing their story Kate Quinn was not writing from facts but from her imagination as she put words in her characters’ mouths and described their emotions thoughts and feelings, which, of course, she could not have known.

However, I got over my dislike and read on – after all, this is fiction, not an accurate historical account. I like to know which is fact and which is fiction when I read historical fiction. So, after reading the review copy I received via NetGalley, I decided I needed to buy the published book and read the Author’s Note. And I’m glad did because I was relieved to find that Kate Quinn goes into a lot of detail to identify which characters are real and which fictional and how she has fictionalised them. She also reveals that she has also deviated from the historical records ‘to serve the story.’ I think this explains why I was uncomfortable with the book and why I don’t often read historical romances.

With thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for my review copy.

My Friday Post: The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring one of my library books, The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy.

Eliane; 2017

She knew this would be her last summer. The warm caress of the late-spring sunlight couldn’t roll back the fog-like weariness that crept through her bones these days. But then there had been so many summers. Almost a hundred.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Page 56:

That night, as the girls lay in their attic bedroom at the mill listening to the owls softly declaring their territory in the darkness, Mireille whispered, ‘Eliane? Are you awake?’

‘Yes,’ came the reply from across the room.

‘It’s been a good Easter, hasn’t it?’

There was a pause. ‘One of the best.’

Set in France at the Château Bellevue, this is the story of two remarkable women, generations apart, who must use adversity to their advantage and find the resilience deep within.