Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period.
Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better.
It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid usual crime fiction stereotypes even when navigating some familiar plot beats.
Regular crime readers will pick this one pretty early on. But the draw of this book is not the plot. Rather it is the use of the crime genre to explore the development of medical techniques at the time. Parry charts the early use of ether to assist with pain in childbith and moves on to the discovery of use of chloroform. On the way, readers are treated to some fairly gruesome and explicit birthing techniques and surgery without anaesthetic.
Parry creates a great feel of the Edinburgh of the time, including the upper class New Town and shady Old Town. In particular the book explores the development of the medical profession as it transitioned from glorified butchery to something more respectable. The bodice ripping (at times) plot allows for a fun and interesting exploration of attitudes and beliefs of the time. And the afterward suggests that there is plenty more source material to build a long running series around.
CRIMESPOTTING - Introduced by Irvine Welsh
All the short stories here are brand new, specially commissioned and from a unique mix of bestselling crime writers. Each author was asked for a story which features a crime and is set in Edinburgh. The results range from hard-boiled police procedural to historical whodunit and from the wildly comic to the spookily supernatural.
I think I'll just keep saying this until I run out of breath completely - but really, the world needs more quality collections of Crime Short Stories. CRIMESPOTTING, a fabulous little volume put together as a fund raiser for The ONECITY Trust, is subtitled "An Edinburgh Crime Collection". It features stories by lesser and well known authors including (in alphabetical order) Lin Anderson, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Christopher Brookmyre, John Burnside, Isla Dewar, A.L. Kennedy, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and James Robertson. (There are some stories here which go on to be included in the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime which I'm going to mention in a review soonish). The requirement for inclusion was that the story included a "crime" and was set in Edinburgh. The results are remarkedly diverse.
Needless to say I've been reading a few short story collections recently. Mostly because I find them such a fascinating form of writing, although I also find them almost invaluable for filling in the dreaded "waiting time" that seems to go with life these days. One thing I'm increasingly becoming aware of is that a really really good short story can't be as easy to write as you would think. A Crime short story in particular still has to provide a reader with some of the elements of the genre that you expect - a crime / investigation / resolution / explanation / consideration / illumination and so on.
What was immediately obvious in CRIMESPOTTING is that there is an incredibly high standard of story-telling in each of these entries - although there are obviously also absolute standout entries. To be honest I'd have a bit of trouble voting for my specific favourite as a lot of them appealed immensely. Luckily, there's probably something for fans of all sorts of different sub-genres.
For this reader, CRIMESPOTTING (and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime for that matter) really were a master class in short story reading. Good enough to go back and reread many of the entries, CRIMESPOTTING became a permanent resident of the car glovebox a while ago. It will head back there after this review has been written as flicking back through the book there's a couple of entries I'd like to read again.
TRUTH LIES BLEEDING - Tony Black
Four teenagers find the mutilated body of a young girl crammed into a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway. Who is she? Where has she come from? Who has killer her - and why?
Inspector Rob Brennan, recently back from psychiatric leave, is still shocked by the senseless shooting of his only brother. The case of the dumpster girl looks perfect for getting him back on track. But Rob Brennan has enemies within the force, stacks of unfinished business, and a nose for trouble.
Tony Black has a taken a break from journalist turned Private Eye Gus Dury in his earlier four novels to write a police procedural featuring Edinburgh cop Rob Brennan. Comparisons are obviously going to be drawn between Dury and Brennan so let's get them out of the way up front. Dury is an outsider, the sort of bloke that trouble will turn right across heavy traffic to have a go at. Brennan's a family man, albeit one that's been indulging in a bit of extra-marital with the police psychologist. One that's having trouble coming to grips with a teenage daughter, and who obviously needs to sort it out with his wife. He's also suffering badly over the unsolved murder of his brother. There's a distinct possibility that trouble for Brennan will be wielding a handbag, looking for a word in his shell-like.
Brennan has just returned to work when he's given the case to solve. The body of a young girl in a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway seems somehow sort of predictable. But as her identity is revealed, her family found, and the fact that she'd recently had a baby of which there is absolutely no sign revealed, Brennan finds himself with quite a complicated problem to solve. Not helped because his boss is climbing the slippery ladder of career achievement and is more than happy to grind her high heels in the head of a subordinate that she can't even pretend to like.
Scottish noir at it's absolute and utter best, TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is a rollercoaster of the personal and professional, dark and light, desperation and determination. The personal relationships swirling around Brennan are drawn beautifully, and the fight to solve the crime, and find this missing baby is just the right mix of frustration and desperation, intuition and good old fashioned detecting. I must admit I did start to wonder at one point what it is about women and Brennan - just about every female character in this book wanted at or rid of him.
Aside from that one observation TRUTH LIES BLEEDING was very difficult to put down. There's none of the lunacy of the Dury books, and despite Brennan being yet another complex and confronted policeman making mistakes, up against the world, put upon and misunderstood, he's a very solid example of those characteristics. Likeable and annoying, understandable and completely inexplicable, Brennan's very believable. I can't remember who said it or where it was, but I do always remember something about police characters needing that sort of conflict in their lives in order to explain their drive to succeed - solve the case. Certainly that idea rang in my head as I read this book, but at no stage is the conflict overdone or overblown. There are echoes of some other well known Scottish detectives from the same location, but Black has set Brennan in the margins of Edinburgh society, sad, grim and surrounded by a lot that seems hopeless, and then he gives him a spark of something that could just mean he's going to get his act together.
EXIT MUSIC - Ian Rankin
There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 in the Scottish Police Force, so Rebus is finally on his way out. Weird really that with all the suspensions, life threatening events and the number of times that he's annoyed Siobhan to the point of shooting him, it's age that's going to see Rebus move on. At the very least you'd think something spectacular. Depending on how Rankin feels about his creation, I guess he could equally have killed him off with a massive whiskey, beer and fish and chip induced heart attack. But Rebus is alive at the end of Exit Music and this is his retirement book - not his total end.
Starting off the book with the same first line of the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses, Rankin proceeds to give Rebus a low-key, almost dignified final exit. Well apart from a last minute suspension, the sniff of an allegation of an assault charge pending for a while, and an uncertain future that is.
The final case that Rebus and Siobhan handle is the bashing murder of a dissident Russian poet. It looks like a mugging gone wrong, but there is a high-level Russian delegation in town, keen to bring business to Scotland and the local politicians and bankers are keen to get the investigation wrapped up and "put away" out of sight. Big "Ger" Cafferty and his presence around the edges of the Russian delegation is just one more thing that makes Rebus suspect that there is a lot more to the mugging than it seems and a second, very brutal death, just seals the suspicion for Rebus.
There's an elegant balancing of focus in EXIT MUSIC. Rebus isn't fading into the background, but then again Siobhan's not going anywhere either. As Rebus is suspended and goes "solo" Siobhan steps out into the light just that little bit more and, bless her, she does her own bit of bucking authority in her own way. She's definitely a bit quieter about the rebellion than the old dinosaur but she's just as effective. The other elegant act of EXIT MUSIC is to cast a light on the delicate (and frequently lost) balance of politics and business, and just how much influence money can have in all the wrong and right places. It's no co-incidence that Rankin has recently been in Melbourne as patron of the Crime and Justice festival (Crime Fiction and Social Justice issues being discussed), as the one thing that the Rebus books do so well is ask the reader to contemplate the subject matter - the circumstances in which the crime is committed and the criminals are created.
Finally Big "Ger" and Rebus. There's a lot of unfinished business there. Will Rankin go there, post retirement. Who knows. EXIT MUSIC tantalises but doesn't reveal.