The Way of All Flesh is the first publication in a new series of crime-novel meets historical fiction, written by a husband-and-wife duo, Chris Brookmyre and Maisa Haetzman, under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry. Set in Victorian times, a medical apprentice and a housemaid team up in an unlikely partnership to solve the mystery after a number of pregnant women are found dead, contorted in pain, around the city of Edinburgh.
The book begins with Will Raven starting his internship with the renowned obstetrician (and real-life historical figure) Dr. James Simpson. Despite being a promising young doctor, he is hounded by old gang ties and past debts. The second main character is Sarah, who has high ambitions despite her low status as a poor woman.
These two fictional characters are well-integrated into the factual setting of Edinburgh’s medical history. However, Sarah’s opinions on her status read as anachronistic. Her frequent feminist musings stick out in the historical setting, as though the writers are using her voice to project their own modern views onto the character. This novel neglects the responsibility of historical fiction to accommodate, and try to understand contemporary views, even if they are difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, it results in a heavy-handed approach to the very interesting and nuanced subject of feminism in the Victorian era.
While the themes and ideas are too modern, the dialogue of the book is overly antiquated. The direct speech is stilted and forced, as it employs Victorian terms and sayings that make the dialogue monotone and unnatural. This is a shame, as it conflicts with the fluidity of the writing of the internal monologues and descriptions.
Chris Brookmyre is an established crime-novelist, while Maisa Haetzman is an anesthetist consultant with a Masters in History of Medicine. Consequently, the Glasgow-based couple would seem perfectly suited to writing a medical-crime novel set in a Scottish city, and yet the novel fails to achieve a balance between these two worlds. The medicinal and scientific discussions in the novel are well-executed, but this is at the expense of the plot, which becomes confused in the second half of the book due to the abundance of fun medical facts.
The book’s strong point is its descriptive capacity to effectively convey the people and atmosphere of Victorian Edinburgh. However, there is a point at which such an amount of character and setting description becomes excessive. The book, as the first in a series, does have a responsibility to establish the main characters and setting for the books to come. However, it does not make the book incredibly successful as a stand-alone piece of work.. The novel’s plot manages to be both predictable and confusing. You can guess who the culprit is as soon as they enter the novel, but it’s still easy to get very confused in the second-half of the book as to who is who, who killed who, and so on.
While the novel deftly tackles the delicate issues of abortion, death and religion in scientific history, it doesn’t ultimately achieve the balance between crime-novel and historical fiction that it aims for.
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry.