Edinburgh, 1850. Sarah Fisher is keeping a safe distance from her old flame Dr Will Raven. Having long worked at the side of Dr James Simpson, she has set her sights on learning to practise medicine herself. A notion everyone seems intent on dissuading her from. Across town, Raven finds himself drawn into Edinburgh’s mire when a package containing human remains washes up on the shores of Leith, and an old adversary he has long detested contacts him, pleading for Raven’s help to escape the hangman. Sarah and Raven’s lives seem indelibly woven together as they discover that wealth and status cannot alter a fate written in the blood…
Take a trip with me if you will to the streets of 19th century Edinburgh, to a place of obscene wealth alongside grinding poverty. A Corruption Of Blood is the third in the Raven & Fisher series, following The Way Of All Flesh and The Art Of Dying and the story has moved on apace. Fear not, if this is a new-to-you series as Ambrose Parry perfectly drip-drips in backstory enough for any reader to catch up and get familiar with the characters in this now established historical crime series…
Obviously the lynchpin of the readability of these books are the characters of Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, and both are beautifully realised. Raven has an earnestness about him that is really quite appealing, eager to learn as much as he can under the patronage of the esteemed Dr James Simpson, and has a keen social awareness, recognising and empathising with the lives of the lower classes and their right to the same level of medical care as the upper orders. Like all good protagonists he has the obligatory ‘darkness’ to his character and prone to physical violence when his dander is up, formed by his less than happy upbringing, and this book finds him again torn between his feelings for Sarah Fisher, but with a new flame in his life too. By setting his travails of the heart, where he needs a good shake in my opinion, alongside a particularly dark and sickening series of crimes involving baby-farming, the scene is set for an engrossing read.
Sarah Fisher has an interesting journey of discovery in this one as she is still entrenched in her widows weeds after the devastating events of the previous book, and embarks on a trip to Europe, with Dr Simpson’s daughter Mina, to track down the trailblazing Dr Blackwell, a woman in possession of a medical degree, which remains Sarah’s ultimate goal. Sarah is still grappling with her transition from maid to doctor’s assistant, so there is some interesting commentary on the theme of class and ‘knowing one’s place’. After a disappointing discovery, that may thwart her route to becoming a doctor proper, she returns to Edinburgh, to find herself firmly entrenched in her undoubted attraction to Raven, and her giving much needed assistance to his amateur detective skills. I think Sarah is generally much more clearly defined as a character, with her sharp edges and her encapsulating the struggle of women to be recognised in professional roles and indeed recognised generally. As Raven observes of her on her return from Europe,
“It was painful to see her… looking so untypically unsure of herself, so wracked by doubt. Raven’s perception of her was of someone formidable. of there being nothing she could not achieve once she had made it her purpose. There was no obstacle she could fail to overcome with her confounding intelligence and infuriating tenacity.”
As emotional empathy and engagement, good and bad, with characters is at the heart of a good book, I always feel there is generally more heft and depth to her character, and that’s particularly true of this book.
The attention to historical and medical detail is exemplary, giving the reader a real sense of being rooted in a particular time and place in history. The application of medical treatment and surgery is not for the faint-hearted, but is always interesting to view in the light of modern treatments, and how practitioners such as Dr Simpson trailblazed their way in their discoveries. Equally, the portrayal of Edinburgh with its two very distinct social stratum is as vivid and sensory as the previous books, where the have-nots vastly outnumber the privileged, and the differences in the lives of relentless grind, and those cushioned by their wealth, are starkly depicted and compared.
A Corruption Of Blood has been my favourite of the series to date, largely due to the greater spotlight on the tribulations of Sarah Fisher, seeking to define herself as an independent woman, and the difficult pursuit of her dream. I was fascinated by the main ‘crime’ story line as this was something I had little prior knowledge of, but was slightly disappointed by the over egging of Dr Will Raven’s affairs of the heart which did grow a little tedious. However, this is still a solid recommendation for those who enjoy their historical crime fiction with a well researched and overall darker edge.
Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The couple are married and live in Scotland. Chris Brookmyre is the international bestselling and multi-award-winning author of over twenty novels. Dr Marisa Haetzman is a consultant anaesthetist of twenty years’ experience, whose research for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine uncovered the material upon which this series, which begun with The Way of All Flesh, is based. The Way of all Flesh was longlisted for both the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. Follow on Twitter @ambroseparry.
(With thanks to Canongate for the ARC)
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