Review: A Corruption Of Blood

Ambrose Parry – A Corruption Of Blood (Blog tour)

Published by Canongate Books, paperback £8.99. Also available in ebook and audiobook. I received a copy of the hardback edition of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation to join the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: Edinburgh, 1850. This city will bleed you dry. Sarah Fisher is keeping a safe distance from her old flame Dr Will Raven. Having long worked at the side of Dr James Simpson, she has set her sights on learning to practise medicine herself – a notion everyone seems intent on dissuading her from. Across town, Raven finds himself drawn into Edinburgh’s mire when a package containing human remains washes up on the shores of Leith, and an old adversary he has long detested contacts him, pleading for Raven’s help to escape the hangman. Sarah and Raven’s lives seem indelibly woven together as they discover that wealth and status cannot alter a fate written in the blood.

Having loved the first two Ambrose Parry novels, The Way Of All Flesh and The Art Of Dying, it was a pleasure to dive back into 19th century Edinburgh as envisioned by Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman and the world first created in the wake of the latter’s research for a Masters in the history of medicine. (By the way, do read the historical note at the end – fact is often stranger and more horrible than fiction.)

A Corruption Of Blood opens with a delightfully knowing line about books, and some deep thoughts from Will Raven, a doctor quietly flourishing in the practice of the great Dr James Simpson, as he arrives at an insalubrious address in Leith to attend a birth. Having found a woman he wishes to marry, his thoughts turn to fatherhood – what would he pass on to a child? The violent temper of his own father? A new life is a new start, but family history is a weight for some where for another it might be the means by which they soar. As he leaves, he sees a crowd at the waterfront, where a man is fishing something out of the water: it’s the body of a dead baby. It’s a painful beginning, juxtaposed against the successful birth Will has just assisted and his own hopes. Both hope and pain recur throughout the novel, in many guises and paying no mind to whether those involved are from humble or privileged backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Sarah has travelled to the Continent, determined to meet Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree, and find out how to follow in her footsteps. But she returns to Edinburgh unsure of her future path even though both Dr Simpson and Will – with whom she has verbally sparred in delightful fashion since they met in The Way Of All Flesh – support her ambitions. Sarah is a wonderful character, and I find her hugely relatable. She is feisty, strong-willed, and forever chafing at the expectations (and hypocrisies) 19th century society has of women, while still acutely feeling her lack of schooling and stint as a housemaid define her rather than her actual status as a widow of modest independent means and assistant to Dr Simpson. 

The idea of “knowing your place” is front and centre in this novel in many characters and in some unexpected places. Sarah’s grandmother was the village healer, and she wonders if she is wrong to aspire to be more than that despite her earlier ambitions. Meanwhile, Will discovers violence and disappointments are not only seen in poorer families, and that privilege brings its own weight of responsibility and constraints (though of course life is always a little easier when you have a head start).

A wealthy and powerful individual is found dead; his son suspected of murder – who calls in Will to help him. The two were adversaries rather than friends at medical school, but Will is persuaded by a mutual friend to look into the case. Meanwhile, Sarah has taken it upon herself to look into the mysterious Mrs Knight. The two quickly join forces to use their respective abilities to best effect, unravelling a tangled web of secrets, lies, greed and horrors past and present on a grand scale.

In the last part of the book there is action, twist, reveal and jeopardy piled on until you reach exhaustion – in all honesty there’s perhaps a bit too much going on. But I’m being picky because there is so little to fault elsewhere: character, plot, pacing and sense of place all get top marks. (And I wouldn’t be without the moment where Simpson hurts his hand while opening a parcel; it felt like a fun “Easter egg” in the moment, growing to become more of a curate’s egg by the end of the novel…)

And finally, we do get to relax a little right at the end, with something like justice for some, and a new beginning for others, which satisfies without being too neatly tied up. 

Will says of Sarah at one point: “He wanted her to … always be more than she was yesterday.” I can’t help but think this applies to the authors, who are always pushing to give the reader more with each novel – and succeeding, in my view, as A Corruption Of Blood has become my new favourite of the series. Until book 4, anyway! 

Ambrose Parry is the penname for two very different authors – the internationally bestselling and multi-award-winning Chris Brookmyre and consultant anaesthetist of 20 years’ experience, Dr Marisa Haetzman. Inspired by the gory details Haetzman uncovered during her History of Medicine degree, the couple teamed up to write a series of historical crime thrillers, featuring the darkest of Victorian Edinburgh’s secrets. They are married and live in Scotland. Both The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. A Corruption of Blood is the third Raven and Fisher Mystery.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @ambroseparry

Don’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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