Canongate | 2019 (29 August) | 416p | Review copy | Read the book
It is 1850 and Edinburgh is a leading city in the world of medical science but all is not well in the city. Many patients are falling suddenly ill, dying without obvious cause, while Dr James Simpson’s career is being threatened by rumour and scandal. Simpson’s protégé Will Raven has now returned from Berlin where his medical training has been completed. Now a qualified doctor he is ready to work alongside Simpson and to work with the former housemaid Sarah Fisher to clear the name of the man who has given them both so much. But Raven has left the continent under a cloud and it hangs over him while his relationship with Sarah will now be further tested. But Raven and Sarah are beginning to realise that a ruthless killer is loose in the city and it’s up to them to end it before more lives are taken.
The Art of Dying is the second novel by Ambrose Parry to feature Raven and Sarah. I’m sorry to say that I’ve yet to read the first novel The Way of All Flesh. This didn’t affect my enjoyment in The Art of Dying at all but, although its mystery is self-contained, it did mean that I didn’t know the history between Raven and Sarah and I think that if you do know these two already, then you will be delighted to encounter them again. They are wonderful characters. There’s a sense that Will Raven has changed. Perhaps he’s grown up a little but he still fights a battle within himself. He is a man of medicine, a doctor works to save lives, but he’s taken them, too.
Sarah is harder to know and she has more to endure. She is, for me, the most fascinating character in the novel. Through Sarah we explore the life of a Victorian woman, a Victorian wife who wants nothing more than to be a doctor herself, not a nurse but a physician. She is tested in the cruellest of ways while finding support, unexpectedly, from Will Raven.
I loved the historical medical insight that can be found throughout the novel. These were exciting days as such things as chloroform were becoming more widely used, pioneered by James Simpson in Edinburgh. Simpson and Raven are obstetricians, which means we see the happiness and grief of female health, pregnancy and childbirth in Victorian Britain. It forms such an effective and at times quite emotional backdrop to this tale of murder which threatens the foundations of medical science at this most significant point in its development.
The Art of Dying is an excellent Victorian crime novel, which mixes in comment on the position of women in 19th-century society (and medicine) with a a great deal of gripping plot. I may have missed the first novel in this series but I cannot wait to read the third!