Anyone who knows me, or this blog, knows that I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Since I picked up Alias Grace many (many) moons ago, I’ll always choose historical fiction over any other genre. So I was a warm target for The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry. Set in the 1840s, it fuses the medical world of Edinburgh with a series of violent crimes against women to produce an unusual historical crime novel.
Despite many 5 star reviews, publicity for the book seems overly reliant on the kudos of its authors. ‘Ambrose Parry’ is a pseudonym for a collaboration between the renowned Scottish author Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist. But does it work?
The book’s central characters are a medical student and a housemaid who are both discontented in different ways. Will Raven is serving as an apprentice to Dr Simpson, a sought-after obstetrician who’s leading the charge in the use of chloroform. Sarah Fisher is a maid in Simpson’s household, often neglecting her maidly duties to help triage the endless stream of patients who end up on Simpson’s doorstep. Raven is frustrated that he can’t break into the upper echelons of Edinburgh society where he feels he belongs, and Fisher is stymied by the patriarchal barriers that prevent her from practicing medicine. These two characters are wary of each other at first, but a series of mysterious deaths across Edinburgh means that over time (and inevitably) they come to rely on and even like each other.
Even with the compellingly gritty backdrop of Victorian-era Edinburgh and an uncommon choice of characters as the ‘detectives’, this book didn’t really work for me. There was enough there to keep me reading to the end, but only just.
Part of the problem is that the book felt like it was being pulled in two different directions. For some of the time, it was desperate to highlight the poverty and filth of old Edinburgh, channelling the macabre Burke and Hare underbelly of the city. At other times, it wanted to explore the history of medicine, and the discovery of chloroform in particular, with several scenes focussing on the bloodiness of child birth during this era.
It therefore came as no surprise to me when I realised that the book was written by two people who obviously made quite distinct contributions. Seemingly, Brookmyere handled the ‘pace and plot’, while Haetzman focussed on the medical detail. The result is an awkward, hybrid beast – a kind of a pushmi-pullyu piece of fiction.
In addition, there isn’t a lot of nuance in the writing. Either the authors didn’t trust themselves to communicate the story effectively, or they didn’t trust us as readers to understand it. Either way, there’s a lot more telling that showing which isn’t warranted (if it ever is).
Tom and Meg Keaneally’s collaboration on the Monserrat series is a great example of where an authoring partnership can really work (in historical fiction no less). If Brookmyre and Haetzman intend to continue this as a series, as all the publicity would suggest, then in my humble view they need to do two things. First, they should procure a strong editor. Secondly, over a good bottle of McLaren Vale Shiraz, they need to robustly debate the limitations of each other’s writing. In the way that only a married couple truly can.