The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry – a powerful novel of medicine, murder and more in Victorian Edinburgh

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is one of the most vivid and atmospheric historical novels I have ever read. Set in Edinburgh, 1949, it mainly concerns the progress, challenges and downright dangers of practicing medicine in a city where early death was frequent and often unavoidable. It continues the story of the real pioneer of medical chloroform, Doctor James Simpson, and his fictional assistants Doctor Will Raven and former housemaid, the determined Sarah Fisher. In a city where professional jealousy and uncertainty about medical breakthroughs are rife, even a brilliant discovery helps fuel suspicion of a doctor who does not conform to the rules. The book follows the brilliant “The Way of All Flesh” by the same writing team of writer Chris Brookmyre and anaesthetist Dr Marisa Haetzman, but it is written in a way to stand alone as a novel which brings to life the world of respectable people with their own agendas and the poor who struggle with the basics of life. Will Raven is a recently qualified doctor who has fought his way out of a difficult background and aspires to make a name for himself, but fights with a certain wildness and people who make dangerous demands on him. My favourite character is the impressive feminist Sarah, elevated from a purely domestic role to an undefined associate with a desperate desire to learn, despite being held back at every turn by her gender. Enveloped by the consequences of a decision made in Will’s absence, she has much to cope with, but her ambition still motivates her, along with her loyalty to her supporter, Dr Simpson. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special, vividly written book.

The novel begins with Raven and some of his friends fighting off a street attack in Berlin, where he has travelled as part of his tour of medical establishments. Typically he has to remove a bullet from his friend’s leg, but it is only later that he considers his other actions. He returns to Edinburgh to take up his new post with Dr Simpson, moving into his house and reintroducing himself to the rather chaotic household. Keen to begin his new role, he soon discovers the elements of his past will still seek to claim him. His greatest shock, however, is the change in Sarah’s condition which extend beyond her promotion from domestic servant. She maintains her ambition to be a doctor in her own right, but acknowledges that she will not be accepted for formal study. Inspired by a tragic patient, she nonetheless struggles with the knowledge that she may never be able to pursue her dreams. More immediately, she realizes that her mentor. Dr Simpson, is being unfairly blamed for a death within the medical world, and is keen to clear his name. Raven also wants to help in the investigation, but is distracted by thoughts of a new form of disease. As the narrative is interspersed with accounts of a woman with a unique history, it begins to be urgent to track down the truth at whatever the risk.

This is a powerful and effective novel which deserves to do well as its intensity lingers in the memory. It successfully evokes a setting and time of medical treatments which are not always effective despite the practitioner’s best efforts, and this book will be of great interest to those interested in the social history of medicine. The characters’ thoughts and fears are well recorded, and the world of Victorian Edinburgh vividly created in this memorable and powerful book.  

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – a intelligent, complex and challenging historical murder mystery



It is 1847 in Edinburgh, a dark time of threat and death for Will Raven as this historical novel plunges into a series of suspicious deaths. There is a bleak start to this book, and many dark things occur as he tries to avoid certain people while beginning a career which attracts controversy.  There are many other points of interest which are positive, revealing a wealth of research and a keen eye to plot which means that this is far more than a murder mystery. The characters who people this novel are extremely well drawn, as Raven encounters a determined and able housemaid with aspirations, and his new apprentice master, the brilliant and memorable Dr Simpson, as well as myriad other characters who are carefully developed even if they have a relatively minor roles. From senior policeman to ranting minister, this is an Edinburgh filled with the sort of characters who keep the plot moving, and Raven living with continual challenges, as he tries to survive and thrive in his chosen profession. The intricacies of childbirth and the details of surgical procedures pepper this novel, so it is a strong and powerful narrative on many levels. Action, dirt and blood make this a fast paced novel of incredible and well thought through action make this a book which I was really pleased to read and review.


The novel begins with a dead prostitute, for which the narrative makes an apology. Soon we learn far more about this tragedy, that this girl had a name, Evie, and an ambition as her humble room is examined. Will Raven is distressed to discover her body, but is quick to sneak away as he does not want to become involved in any possible investigation. He is already in trouble, as he borrowed money to give to her with no immediate way of paying it back. He meets with violence very soon, however, and it is his friend Henry who must help him. Raven has prospects which he is keen to take up as apprentice medical student to the well regarded Dr Simpson, famous for helping at many hundreds of births, for both the rich ladies of Edinburgh and those who could not really afford to pay. Within hours of arriving at the house of this eminent man he is speeding through the streets to help with a difficult birth, hoping that his inexperience will not show, especially with the challenging introduction of ether. Meanwhile the reader is introduced to Sarah Fisher, able and intelligent housemaid who heartily wishes she had the opportunity to learn medicine or at least chemistry, who reads widely and runs the clinic open to the poor of the city which is run by Simpson’s assistant. An unmarried young woman, Mina, demonstrates that even relatively well off women are still judged by their marriage prospects, and it is well into the novel before a more unrestricted young woman is introduced. As other deaths occur, Raven and Sarah eventually join forces to investigate just what is going on in the world of illicit medicine and controversial treatments.


I found this a really gripping book, with such a well developed series of characters and incidents that I found it difficult to stop reading at any point. When even those people who make brief appearances are so well drawn, as well as the plot having depth and so many strands, this is an impressive novel which I really enjoyed. This is an excellent historical read which I recommend for anyone who appreciates both a murder mystery and a challenging, complex novel.