The Wages of Sin is a historical mystery set in 1890s Edinburgh, about female medical students and murder in the city’s slums. Sarah Gilchrist left London, her family, and her scandal behind when she came to Scotland to study medicine, but a lot of people—including the male students and her own aunt and uncle—would prefer her to give up her studies and leave. When she finds the corpse of one of her patients on the dissecting table, Sarah is drawn into a world of brothels, opium, and danger, not even sure whether her own lecturers are connected to the death. At the same time, she is constantly battling the opinions of not only those who don’t think women should become doctors, but also her fellow female medical students who think her tarnished reputation might reflect badly on them.
This is an enjoyable gothic murder mystery that foregrounds the lives of female medical students and of prostitutes to show the troubles and dangers involved in being a Victorian woman. Sarah is a powerful protagonist, often flawed in her assumptions about situations but determined to follow her dream and to not let her past define her. Welsh writes a variety of characters and creates a vivid world, particularly in distinguishing the twelve female students and some of their stories in getting to be medical students. The narrative is tense and not just focused on solving the mystery of the death, but also on the life of Sarah and of many of the other characters in some way or another.
The Wages of Sin is a historical novel with a gothic vibe that has a blend of murder mystery, 1890s feminism, and varied characters. Its protagonist is allowed to be both flawed and likeable, and it won’t be surprising to see future novels about her and her exploits.