Author Chris Brookmyre and his wife Dr Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist, have embarked on a new challenge together: writing a historical crime series set in the medical world of Edinburgh in the 1840s. The series is published by Canongate under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry.
Can you tell us a bit about the series?
The Way of All Flesh is intended as the first in a series of historical crime novels set in 1840s Edinburgh that will follow the progress of Will Raven as he makes his way in the world of Edinburgh medicine, alongside Sarah Fisher, a housemaid who has aspirations far beyond domestic service. As the apprentice to James Young Simpson, the esteemed professor of midwifery, Will is a young man with a promising future – though only if he can outrun the demons of his past. The headstrong Sarah immediately recognises Will as trouble, but a series of mysterious deaths forces them to recognise each other’s value as they work together to uncover the truth.
Where did the idea come from?
The project grew out of our discussions around Marisa’s dissertation for her Masters degree in the History of Medicine, which centred upon the use of anaesthesia in the Edinburgh Royal Maternity hospital in the late 1840s. We both became inspired by how James Young Simpson’s work transcended the city’s social strata, and by the boundlessly colourful nature of his domestic arrangements. In contrast to the starchy formality normally associated with a grand Victorian household, Simpson’s home was a conduit through which all Edinburgh life flowed, from the poorest of patients who attended his clinics to the academics, artists and aristocrats who sought his advice or dined there as his guests.
What impact does the Edinburgh setting have on the series?
This was a time when Edinburgh led the world in the field of medicine, so its setting is absolutely pivotal to the book. It was a city of colossal cultural and scientific significance, and we feel its contemporary pre-eminence ought to be more celebrated in popular culture. It was also a city of stark social contrasts, the dire poverty and cut-throat violence of the Old Town existing in parallel with the grand households of the New Town. Simpson’s life transcended this divide, but not all innovators were driven by such humanitarian or altruistic motives, so the book also focuses on the darker side of medicine and the seamier side of the city, a world of prostitutes, money-lenders and abortionists.
Why did you decide to work together?
We felt that by pooling our resources we could create a richer novel than either of us might write on their own. Chris was bringing 20 years of storytelling experience while Marisa was bringing a detailed understanding of the subject informed not merely by her years of research, but by two decades of first-hand perspective upon the practice of anaesthesia.
How does working together work?
Harmoniously, for the most part. We are both respectful of what other brings to the table, and that is often quite literal. We sit at the kitchen table and discuss the story, then divide up the writing according to who is more suited to writing a particular passage. Then we swap and re-work each other’s contributions.
What are the best and worst things about working together
The best thing is that we can both rely on the other to deliver elements that we each know we personally could not: essentially Chris’s handling of pace and plot and, Marisa’s forensic attention to detail. The worst thing is Marisa’s forensic attention to detail being messed up by Chris’s handling of pace and plot.
What are main themes in your novel?
The power of the medical profession and how such power can be corrupting. The birth of anaesthesia and its surprising struggle for acceptance. However, underpinning everything is the theme of how women are limited by this society: whether that be the paucity of educational opportunities for someone as bright as Sarah; the restricted roles offered to even the ladies above stairs, who can aspire to little other than respectable motherhood; or more generally the limited control women of all stations were able to exert regarding their reproductive rights.
How is the series different from Chris' previous work?
For one thing, it is infinitely less sweary, but mainly it comes down to the period setting. Chris has written about the future but never the past.
This interview is part of The Bookseller’s Scotland Country Focus. For more stories and interviews from the Focus, click here.