The Way of All Flesh is a historical novel that blends crime and medicine, showing the cutthroat world of scientific discovery and the dangerous situations of the poor of Victorian Edinburgh. Will Raven starts an apprenticeship with the renowned Dr Simpson, who alongside his patients is looking for discoveries in anaesthesia. In Simpson’s house, Raven meets Sarah, a housemaid with an interest in medicine and an early dislike of Raven. Soon, they find themselves working together to uncover why young women keep turning up dead in the Old Town, deaths that seem to have some link to the medical world that Raven inhabits.
The novel is co-written by a crime writer and a consultant anaesthetist, giving it a thoroughly medical setting whilst weaving in mystery and money. The class elements are vital too: Edinburgh is divided and the characters cross between rich and poor areas. Raven finds himself confronted by the realities of the poor even as he deals with his own money troubles, with actions he thinks are helpful turning out to not be as well thought out. A lot of interesting elements are combined in the novel and the narrative has plenty of intrigue, though at times the pace is a little slow. Sarah is a great character, providing a reality check for Raven and also showing how intellect could only be valued if you were male and well off.
There have been a number of nineteenth-century historical novels set in Edinburgh featuring elements of crime and medicine released recently (including The Wages of Sin and The Pharmacist’s Wife), but they all tend to have unique elements of focus or narrative. In the case of The Way of All Flesh, this is the quest for anaesthesia combined with the reality of hidden abortion, and the interesting way this intersects with gender and class in a historical context. This novel is definitely one for historical crime fans who aren’t squeamish about medical stuff, and the fact it is the first in the series means there is likely to be plenty more to come.