Review: The Art Of Dying

Ambrose Parry – The Art of Dying

Published by Black Thorn Books, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy (of the Canongate Books hardback edition) from the publisher for review purposes.

The Art Of Dying offers more of the alluring combination of crime fiction and historical fact seen in last year’s The Way Of All Flesh as best-selling novelist Chris Brookmyre and his wife, consultant anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman, take the latter’s research into the history of medicine and mould it into gripping stories.

It’s now 1850, and Will Raven – in the earlier novel an apprentice with Dr James Simpson – is now a qualified doctor studying in Europe when he is offered the post of assistant to Dr Simpson and returns to Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Sarah Fisher, a maid when we first met her, has become a nurse – albeit unqualified – helping with Dr Simpson’s patients in the clinic he runs from the house. There is plenty of awkwardness, by turns amusing and touching, as Will and Sarah adjust to their new roles, and to each other after two years with no contact – especially as Sarah is now married.

Dr Simpson has his own problems, having been accused of recklessness after the death of a patient, and Sarah is adamant she and Will must clear his name. Meanwhile, four members of the same family in a wealthy area of the city have died within two weeks – and the reader is shown that a figure trusted by the household was responsible… So Brookmyre and Haetzman set us on an intriguing path within a few chapters. The reader may need a tiny dose of chloroform to relax after all these thrills.

After a patient Will is called to see for a second opinion dies, he and Sarah link the case to Dr Simpson’s patient and of the family in Trinity, as all exhibited similar strange symptoms. Will pours cold water on Sarah’s theory, but she is proved dangerously correct in both the method and the identity of the killer.

However, the reader is several steps ahead, because we are given brief glimpses into the mind of our murderer – based on a real 19th century figure – throughout the novel. Giving this back story offers us the opportunity to understand how they got on their destructive path, but simultaneously ensures we do not sympathise with them.

There are fewer in-depth medical cases in The Art Of Dying, but those that feature are afforded more emotional weight and urgency. Wider medical and ethical issues are also touched on, particularly surrounding the use of chloroform.

Just as we think we have things figured out, Brookmyre and Haetzman throw in a series of smart twists which had me holding my breath at several points, and we come to an intriguing and far from clear-cut conclusion at the end of the epilogue.

The Art of Dying is a more complex book than its predecessor, the strands are woven together in a more assured way, and the sentences flow more easily. There is sharp humour – I laughed out loud at Will fending off a would-be cutpurse with a line from Crocodile Dundee – and heartfelt emotion, particularly in several scenes involving Sarah’s husband. For any reader in need of a swift-acting tonic, I prescribe picking up The Art Of Dying as soon as possible.

This review first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 11 August, 2019. This is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used in this instance with their kind permission.

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