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A CORRUPTION OF BLOOD . . . Between the covers

 

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Simpson_James_Young_signature_pictureAmbrose Parry is the pseudonym used by husband and wife writing team Dr Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre. As a pseudonym goes, it is a pretty good one, especially for historical novels, as it has a rather convincing resonance to it. Writing partnerships are more common than you might think, and in some cases it remains a mystery as to who contributes what. Not so, possibly, in this case, as Dr Haetzman was a consultant anaesthetist at Wishaw General Hospital in Scotland, and the central characters in this novel are a young doctor in early Victorian Edinburgh – Will Raven – and his mentor, the real life James Young Simpson (left), a pioneer in the use of anaesthesia (chloroform in the early days) in surgical procedures.

This is the third novel in the series so, as ever, there is a back-story, part of which you can find in my review of the previous book The Art of Dying. Raven’s love interest in that book is a young woman called Sarah who was a domestic servant in the Simpson household. She had a brief flirtation with Raven, but then married another Edinburgh doctor. He died, but left Sarah a considerable fortune, which is helping her pursue her ambition to become a doctor. When this book begins, she has left Edinburgh on her version of The Grand Tour, during which she hopes to meet the first woman to be officially recognised as a professional physician, the American Dr Blackwell.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 18.26.27Meanwhile, Raven has met – and fallen in love with – Eugenie Todd, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, and has also become involved in a murder mystery. Sir Ainsley Douglas, a powerful and influential man of means has been found dead, and the post mortem reveals traces of arsenic in his stomach. His wastrel son Gideon is arrested on suspicion of poisoning his father, with whom he has had a fairly unpleasant falling-out. Raven is an old acquaintance – but far from a friend – of Gideon. The two knew each other from university and Raven has a very low opinion of his former fellow student, and is very surprised when he is summoned to Gideon’s prison cell and asked if he will investigate Sir Ainsley’s death.

Sarah returns from her trip to the continent, but she is chastened by her meeting with Dr Blackwell, who suggested that she simply did not have the depth of education required to become a physician. Uneasy and uncertain at the news of Raven’s new romantic venture, she distracts herself from this unwelcome news by investigating an illegal trade which involves the selling of unwanted babies.

As Raven attempts to piece together the events of the last evening of Sir Ainsley’s life, the arsenic poisoning looks increasingly unlikely since – if it had been administered by Gideon – a former medical student would know that the poison is easily traced in the body. Raven has more personal matters on his mind, too, as he suspects that Eugenie and her father are keeping something from him about the young woman’s past.

There are some grisly scenes in the novel involving both the living and the dead, but the story is suitably – and fiendishly – complex. Readers will have to wait until the very last few pages for all to be revealed and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t foresee how the plot eventually worked itself out. There are no prizes on offer for guessing which parts of the narrative are written by Dr Haetzman, but these authentic descriptions of surgical procedures and spotlights on the history of medicine blend seamlessly with the crime fiction plot to make for a riveting and convincing murder mystery. A Corruption of Blood is published by Canongate Books and is available now.

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THE ART OF DYING … Between the covers

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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.

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SimpsonThis 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.

TAOD cover2Away 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.

THE GATHERING DARK … Between the covers

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DI Tony McLean is an Edinburgh copper who is just a tad different from your standard tick-box fictional Detective Inspector. Yes, he works long hours, to the detriment of his home life, and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his superiors. Yes, he is occasionally given to special insights into crimes and criminals and, of course, he always gets his man (or woman). McLean, though, is something of a breed apart. His personal background is, well, unusual. After unhappy schooldays at a private school he hated, he has inherited money and property which make him a wealthy man after his parents were killed in a plane crash. He is gifted – or cursed – with a heightened sense of perception which may, or may not be, occult in nature. Despite his unwillingness to come to terms with this, he has an interesting friendship with a transvestite spirit medium called Madam Rose, who should be a comic character, but is anything but that.

billwaters_JamesO__10525-smaller-683x1024I should add, at this point, that James Oswald (left) is not your regulation writer of crime fiction novels. He has a rather demanding ‘day job’, which is running a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. His entertaining Twitter feed is, therefore, just as likely to contain details of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ obstetrics as it is to reveal insights into the art of writing great books. But I digress. I don’t know James Oswald well enough to say whether or not he puts anything of himself into the character of Tony McLean, but the scenery and routine of McLean’s life is nothing like that of his creator.

TGDMcLean is going about his daily business when he is witness to a tragedy. A tanker carrying slurry is diverted through central Edinburgh by traffic congestion on the bypass. The driver has a heart attack, and the lorry becomes a weapon of mass destruction as it ploughs into a crowded bus stop. McLean is the first police officer on the scene, and he is immediately aware that whatever the lorry was carrying, it certainly wasn’t harmless – albeit malodorous – sewage waste. People whose bodies have not been shattered by thirty tonnes of hurtling steel are overcome and burned by a terrible toxic sludge which floods from the shattered vehicle.

The police are desperate to reassure the Edinburgh public that this is not a terrorist attack, but a tragic accident, a fateful coming together of coincidences. McLean and his team are tasked with the grim business of identifying all those who died in the crash, but also with investigating the company which owned the lorry, and what on earth the chemical cocktail was that literally burned the flesh and bones of those who came into contact with it.

As McLean starts to peel back the layers of deception and corruption which are wrapped around the truth about the disaster, he senses a sinister element in the case which exudes the stench of pure evil, far beyond that of the already grim death toll. His own personal life – most crucially involving his partner Emma, carrying their unborn child – becomes entangled with the case. McLean’s investigations turn over a heavy stone which reveals myriad guilty and repulsive things scuttling around as they are exposed to the light.

Sometimes titles of crime and thriller novels seem to have been chosen more to catch the eye of potential purchasers rather than for their relationship to the plot, but in this case those three words are chillingly apt. This disturbing story may start off as a relatively straightforward police procedural. All the familiar elements are there: the internal rivalries between officers, the bustling incident room, decent men and women trying to keep a lid on the thousand misdemeanours a big city throws up every week. But. But. A word to the wise. No, scrap that, and replace it with a much more suitable phrase – borrowed from a nightmarish MR James ghost story from 1925 – A Warning to the Curious. I have to tell you that The Gathering Dark is superbly written and gripping from the first page to the last, but it turns hellishly black and may trouble your dreams.

Click the link to read the Fully Booked review of an earlier DI Tony McLean novel, Written In Bones. The Gathering Dark is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, and will be available on 25th January 2018.

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THE GATHERING DARK … The postman delivers

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James Oswald has knocked on the door, and been admitted to the hall wherein are gathered the great and the good of Scottish crime fiction. His DI Tony McLean is now well established, and McLean’s Edinburgh is every bit as authentic as that of his older – and more curmudgeonly – colleague John Rebus. In The Gathering Dark, McLean tries to establish the truth after a catastrophic  event – possibly an accident, but who knows? – where a loaded truck ploughs into a crowd of people at a bus stop, with fatal consequences.

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WRITTEN IN BONES … Between the covers

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“Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.” So went the lyrics of one of my favourite Beatles songs, but the unfortunate victim who features in the opening pages of this excellent police procedural from James Oswald has little to sing about. He plummets through the chill air of an Edinburgh winter early dawn. His descent is broken violently and catastrophically by the unyielding branches of a tree. Had the ten year-old boy out walking under the tree with his dog been an expert on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, he might have said, “Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!” Instead, he is interviewed as the only witness to one of the more bizarre crimes ever investigated by Detective Inspector Tony McLean.

bonesAs the pathologists – literally – piece together the evidence they conclude that the shattered remains in the tree is that all that is left of Bill Chalmers, a copper who was not so much bent as tangled and doubled up on himself. After surviving a jail sentence for his misdeeds, he used his connections and his wits to found a drug rehabilitation charity, which drew immense support from the community.

Now, his good deeds are over. His remains are laid out on a mortuary table. The lad who witnessed Chalmers’ final fall from grace is, himself, remotely connected to Edinburgh gangland gentry. His late father was Tommy Johnston, a club owner and provider of female flesh to the gentry. Johnston was shot dead years earlier, but although there was no shortage of potential suspects, his killer has remained unidentified and at large.

There are so many Detective Inspectors walking the corridors of British crime fiction that to succeed, each must have something different, something which will grab the readers’ attention. McLean is, thanks to a serendipitous bequest from a distant relative, materially far better off than his constabulary colleagues. Despite his ability to buy the flashiest of upmarket motors, he insists on driving an aged Alfa Romeo. He lives in a large house, alone except for his neighbour’s cat, and his on-off girlfriend, Emma. He is not in the first flush of youth, certainly, but he has few vices outside of a perfectly natural love of the warmth and texture of obscure single malt whiskies.

McLean’s quest for answers to explain the dramatic death of Chalmers is hampered by his ever increasing suspicion that if he were to find the truth, it would implicate several serving members of Police Scotland, and these would be men way, way above his own pay grade. As the worst snow for a decade brings chaos to the streets of Scotland’s capital, McLean finds himself the target of not only the weather, but powerful members of an international crime syndicate.

If there is a tiny weakness of the novel, it is its reliance on the backstory, as McLean eventually homes in on the culprits. We are made aware of the resourcefulness and malevolence of the person behind the mayhem – the enigmatic Mrs Saifre. The problem is that there are broad hints of how McLean has suffered at her hands in previous episodes, but we are left having to take this on trust.

This reservation aside, I can recommend Written In Bones to anyone who likes an intense police procedural, with just a dash of the supernatural, lavish helpings of atmosphere, evocative landscape descriptions and beautifully drawn characters. A few words about the author. James Oswald has a day job. That job is probably the most demanding of any occupations, as James is farmer in Fife, where he looks after pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. Written In Bones is published by Michael Joseph and is out now.

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