Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman (pictured below). They live in Glasgow, slightly less genteel – at least in popular image – than Edinburgh, where this novel is set. It novel weaves together two stories, both of which have have factual origins. One strand deals with an horrific serial killer and her victims, while the other story is seen through the eyes of a young doctor in the middle years of the 19th century. The novel is a follow-up to the 2018 publication, The Way of All Flesh.
This is not a book for those squeamish about medical details – especially those common in the 19th century. There are tumours, painful deaths both lingering and sudden, surgical procedures that involve much guesswork and hopeful blundering about the human body – externally and internally. If you are still with me, then the story is this. It is 1849, and we first meet young Dr Will Raven when he is involved in a street brawl in Berlin, where he has been studying. He survives the encounter, and returns to Edinburgh, where he is reunited with his former mentor, Dr James Simpson. Simpson – a real-life character, pictured – is highly regarded, but also the object of much jealousy from less gifted physicians, and is facing charges of malpractice brought about by his envious peers.
Raven had hoped to find an earlier object of his affections – a young woman called Sarah, who also worked with Dr Simpson – available for further dalliance, but in the interim, she has married another doctor, Archie Fisher. He is terminally ill, and as both Will and Sarah are aware of this, the sad fact adds a certain piquancy to the relationship.
Away from the relative gentility of the Simpson household, we have a young woman who moves in very different circles. She has suffered a brutal and traumatic childhood. This has either directed her on a devilish pathway, or kindles a spark which was already there but, either way, she has become a murderer. The writers employ an obvious – but effective – counterpoint here, in that Sarah Fisher desires to become a doctor, while Mary Dempster seeks to hone her skills as a killer. Contemporary society believes that a woman cannot possibly be a success in either occupation.
It takes a while for Will and Sarah to come round to thinking the unthinkable – that Mary Dempster is a clever and a successful killer. Because we, as readers, have had the advantage of reading first-person-viewpoint chapters, we know that she is a devious and malevolent individual. Yes, she has had a terrible upbringing, involving degradation and abuse, but not all orphans who suffered at the hands of Victorian institutions turned out to be serial killers.
As I said earlier, if you are the kind or reader who would shudder at the thought of reading a cut-by-cut account of an early surgical attempt to save a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, then this may not be the book for you. Bolder souls will enjoy a gripping and twisty murder mystery shot through plenty of gore and passion. The Art of Dying came out in hardback in August 2019. This paperback edition is published by Black Thorn and is out now.