Published: August 2018 by Canongate Books
Category: Historical Fiction, Crime, Medical, Mystery, Book Review
Edinburgh, 1847. Will Raven is a medical student, apprenticing for the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Sarah Fisher is Simpson’s housemaid, and has all of Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges.
As bodies begin to appear across the Old Town, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld. And if either of them are to make it out alive, they will have to work together to find out who’s responsible for the gruesome deaths.
The Way Of All Flesh is a historical crime fiction set in 19th century Edinburgh. Will Raven was about to embark on an apprenticeship with distinguished obstetrician, Professor James Young Simpson, a real historical figure who began introducing the use of ether for difficulties in childbirth, and later discovered the anaesthetic qualities of chloroform.
One of the more compassionate doctors, treating the poor as well as the rich, he sought to make childbirth a much less hazardous experience, even though some of the procedures were drastic at the least and barbaric at worst by today’s standards.
The story opens with Raven discovering the body of his erstwhile friend, Evie, a prostitute who wanted to make a better life for herself. When Evie urgently needed a sum of money, Raven borrowed from unscrupulous money lenders. His inability to pay the debt resulted in a beating and knife wound to his cheek, with threats of further violence the longer the debt remained unpaid. His disreputable appearance at Professor Simpson’s house didn’t make the best impression. Raven couldn’t guess what had caused such a seemingly tortuous death.
He looked once more upon the glassy hollowness in her eyes, the contorted mask that was a mockery of her face. He had to swallow back the lump in his throat.
Sarah Fisher, housemaid in Professor Simpson’s employ, was a very intelligent young woman. Held back by the very fact of being female, she nevertheless fed her natural curiosity and fascination with medicine by helping out with the patients at the Professor’s home clinic and reading all the books she could lay her hands on. She took an instant dislike to Raven, partly out of jealousy that he could pursue his medical ambitions, yet the height of a well born woman’s ambition was to secure a husband, regardless of her intellect and capabilities. People is Sarah’s position had to be content with a servant’s position. She had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to voice them, sometimes unwisely.
‘But Sarah, you really must refrain from giving voice to your every thought. Your opinions, unless specifically requested, should be kept to yourself…’
When it became obvious Evie’s death was not an isolated incident, Raven and Sarah form a tentative partnership to try and find out who is responsible for the deaths, driving them into the dark and seedy underbelly of the city. As time went on Raven became more appreciative of Sarah’s knowledge and intelligence, as Sarah’s opinion of Raven also began to undergo a change.
The Way Of All Flesh is a very atmospheric and authentic story, creating a vivid impression of a city where medicine was still at the experimental stage and unscrupulous charlatans were all too evident. The differences between the New Town and Old Town was marked, as were the dangers and challenges of moving from one part to the other.
The pavements were broader here, the crowds thinner. the people he passed were straight-backed and assured in their gait, strolling in a manner that was purposeful and yet unhurried as they browsed the shopfronts. By contrast, the Old Town was a hill of ants, its inhabitants bowed and scuttling as they hastened about its twisted byways…