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.