Constable | 2019 (21 March) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1851 and the Great Exhibition is underway in London. There has rarely been such interest in science and innovation. Apothecary Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain are there to look at the wax anatomical models made by the famous and reclusive Dr Silas Strangeway. But there is a gruesome curiosity among the exhibits – a perfectly dissected hand of flesh and blood. There are medical students in the exhibition and Jem suspects a prank so he takes the hand along to Corvus Hall. This private anatomy school, next to Jem’s own apothecary, is run by Dr Crowe, who recently relocated from Edinburgh, transforming this once grand house into a macabre mix of mortuary, school and museum.
Corvus Hall is not a place to be after dark and not just because of the recently dead corpses or the dissected remains pickled in jars. Dr Crowe’s daughters, the eldest Lilith and twins Sorrow and Silence (one blind and one deaf), move around the ‘dead house’ by night and the students are frightened of them. And then there is a death in the Hall and it’s clear to Jem that this is a place of deadly secrets.
Surgeons’ Hall is the fourth novel in E.S. Thomson’s fantastic series featuring one of the most unusual and fascinating main characters in Victorian crime fiction, Jem Lockhart. Jem lives a life based on a lie. A few people detect the secret, that Jem is a woman living as a man, but generally Jem succeeds, helped by the large birthmark that covers her face, ensuring that most people don’t take a second look. It’s a lonely life but Jem has Will Quartermain for company. This young architect is Jem’s family, along with the servants in their home. But when Will gets a job as an illustrator in Corvus Hall, Jem realises how easy it would be to lose him. All of this adds such depth and feeling to the novels, as well as a sadness. Jem is the perfect observer, she is our narrator, and she watches the women around her who are so constrained and limited by the rules laid down by fathers, husbands, brothers as well as by Victorian society in general. Medicine, especially, is a man’s world.
Medical training in the mid 19th century is the stuff of nightmares and it feels as if every floor, every room of Corvus Hall reeks of death, blood and gore. E.S. Thomson lays this all before us with such vivid and rich prose. She writes beautifully, capturing the atmosphere perfectly. This is a gruesome and macabre place. To catch a killer, Jem and Will must creep around its rooms by night. The house itself is decaying. You can almost smell its stench and feel the horrible wet squishy disgusting mess of a sample trodden underfoot.
E.S. Thomson has such a good time bringing the male world of anatomy, medical training and dissection to life but she has plenty of time for the women of the novel, not all of whom are still alive. Many women are victims, some are silenced in more ways than one, while others have to make a living in the best way that they can and we see all types here. Some are gloriously hideous, pocked with disease, while others are subdued and others still are prey. These are fantastic portraits and some are very moving to read. Jem and Lileth, though, have no doubt that women should have a bigger role in society. There are signs here that medicine is making breakthroughs – anaesthetic is now in use – but some attitudes remain in the dark ages.
But it’s not just the women who come to life in Surgeons’ Hall. There are fantastic descriptions of the men who lurk in the corners of Corvus Hall as well as the raucous students who eat pie and drink ale in the nearby inns. It’s a wonderful depiction of Victorian society as witnessed by these young men, with no vocation, whose eyes are on the money of a career in medicine.
Another role in Surgeons’ Hall worthy of a mention is of course the human body and there are plenty of them here. These people are now worth nothing more than the value of their bones and organs as they’re taken apart bit by bit. What a way to end up. It’s horrifying and they haunt this novel.
The mystery is excellent and it is revealed in such a brilliant way. It’s a compulsive read. I was completely immersed in it. This is such fine writing, steeped in historical and scientific detail. This series is now well established as one of the very best in historical fiction being written today and Surgeons’ Hall is superb and I loved every page of it.