The Way of All Flesh, by Ambrose Parry

38114460I prefer to read about new detectives rather than the polished kind of the classic mysteries, most of the time. I tend to find them more believable because they make mistakes and—let me be honest—because I stand a chance at solving the case before they do. But in Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, one our two amateur detectives makes dangerous mistakes while he and his ad hoc partner attempt to solve the murders of a series of poor women in 1847 Edinburgh. The tension in this book comes not just from the case but also from wondering if one of the protagonists will get himself killed before resolving the matter.

We meet one of our protagonists on one of the worst nights of his life. Will Raven, a medical student, has just discovered the dead body of the woman he loved. Fearing that he will be blamed for the death, he runs…only to run into a pair of enforcers who work for the loan shark he just borrowed a large sum. It’s a miracle that he remains in one piece long enough to make it to the first day of his apprenticeship with the famous obstetrician, Sir James Young Simpson. (Renowned surgeon James Syme also appears in this book.) It’s at Simpson’s house that we meet our second protagonist, Sarah Fisher, who works there as a housemaid and lady’s maid to Simpson’s sister-in-law. While Will has a shot at becoming a wealthy doctor if he applies himself, Sarah’s intelligence and gleaned medical knowledge are almost certain to go to waste because of her gender.

Will and Sarah get off on the wrong foot almost immediately and engage in an unwitting battle of wills while more dead women are discovered around Edinburgh. Because the women are sex workers or housemaids, they don’t receive much attention from the law. Instead, the law is more interested in finding out how an infant’s leg (without the rest of the body) come to be found on a city street. Will’s questions turn up clues that point towards a rogue abortionist (though it takes Will a painfully long time to put the pieces together). It also takes him a distressingly long time to put aside his prejudices and join forces with Sarah to stop the murders.

800px-Dr.James_Young_Simpson_memorial_plaque,_St._Giles
Memorial plague to Sir James Simpson in St. Giles, Edinburgh (Image via Wikicommons)

The mystery in The Way of All Flesh meanders, mostly because Will and Sarah are amateurs and have day jobs that prevent them from working ’round the clock on the case. The villain is an absolute fiend, which adds spice to the mystery plot. But what interested me more was the medical history that is liberally folded into the story. Between Simpson’s experiments with chloroform—a godsend for laboring women—and the terrifying practice of gynaecology and obstetrics in the 1847s, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. I’m a ghoul for medical history and The Way of All Flesh was catnip for me. Readers with a similar interest will probably enjoy this book, if they can get over Will’s moments of righteous temper. Readers who don’t have a strong stomach might want to skip sections if they are otherwise invested in the mystery.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

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