I bring you another one of the discoveries of Rosie’s team, and this one brings us a multifaceted author. I came across this book when I was reading Hyde, and I couldn’t resist spending a bit more time in Victorian Edinburgh. I must say that it was the right call!
The Book of Skulls (Doctresses 1) by David Hutchison
A Victorian tale of gender-bending, hidden identity, obsession and gruesome murder, set in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
1875. Liz Moliette; a poor orphan of unknown heritage, and Amulya Patel; from a wealthy Indian family, are the only female students at the Edinburgh Medical School, where a hostile attitude towards women is driven by Professor Atticus. However Liz and Amulya have allies in fellow student Campbell Preeble, The Reekie reporter Hector Findlay and the charming Dr Paul Love.
In dire need of funds, Liz becomes assistant to gruff lecturer and police surgeon Dr Florian Blyth. When a series of grisly murders take place the doctor and Liz help Inspector Macleod in his investigation, which leads to the Edinburgh Asylum, the Burry Man festival and the quack science of phrenology.
The search for the killer comes dangerously close to Liz as she uncovers her own family secrets.
About the author:
David Hutchison was brought up in the Scottish Highlands. He worked for many years as a fisherman, crofter, DJ and self-taught artist.
His children’s book Storm Hags was shortlisted for the Kelpie Prize. He’s had several short stories published in anthologies (New Writing Scotland, Read By Dawn) and on BBC radio. He is also a filmmaker. He wrote and directed the sci-fi feature Graders, and comedy/meta-horror Baobhan Sith.
He has just completed The Book of Skulls, a BAME and LGBQT story of hidden identity and murder, inspired by Edinburgh’s murky medical history.
In 2019 he put on the exhibition Medical Inspirations, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh Seven; the first group of women to matriculate at a British university.
He also teaches classes in scriptwriting.
I write this as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.
As I know we are all busy and I can go on and on with my reviews, I leave you the summary recommendation first, and then, you can go ahead and read the more detailed review, or not. This is a fun and easy-to-read historical mystery novel, set in Edinburgh in the Victorian Era, with some touches of horror and Gothic, a diverse cast, and fully adapted to modern sensibilities. I particularly recommend it to readers interested in the history of women in Medicine, those who love a Scottish setting, and those who enjoy a good adventure that doesn’t get too caught up in procedural details. It is also the first of a series, so if you strike it lucky and love it, you’ll have more to come. I will also recommend it to older YA and NA readers, as long as they don’t mind (or like) a gruesome story. (Although I don’t want to give much of the story away, I’ll let you know that there are headless corpses aplenty, so you’ve been warned).
I had never read any of Hutchinson’s books before or seen his artwork, but there is little doubt that he is a multitalented individual (the cover and the illustrations inside the book are also his, and I loved them as well), and I know we’ll cross paths in the future.
The description of the book does it justice, and because of the mystery side of the story, I want to make sure I avoid spoilers and say too much. In his biography, the author describes the book as “a BAME and LGBQT story of hidden identity and murder, inspired by Edinburgh’s murky medical history” and that contains plenty of information as well. If I had to highlight something would be that it made me think of the type of stories and novels written at the time the book is set in, with plenty of adventures, excitement, dangers, very bad baddies, very resourceful heroes (and heroines), some Gothic and gore elements, which were not always a hundred percent realistic and required a degree of suspension of disbelief perhaps greater than we are used to with mystery or thrillers nowadays. When we are first introduced to the main protagonist, Liz, her orphanage made me think of Jane Eyre, but there the similarities end. There are other characters and situations that brought to my mind other novels of the period, but I can’t go into detail without revealing too much of the plot, so I’ll keep my peace.
This is a solid historical novel and offers plenty of information about the period, some of the important figures in women’s fight to gain entry into the Faculty of Medicine, and other historical events and locations of Victorian Edinburgh, including language and turns of phrase that add authenticity to the story. I have mentioned the diverse cast of characters, and the author’s description also highlights that the two female protagonists are from non-white ethnic backgrounds (they aren’t the only ones), and there are LGBT characters and themes integral to the story as well, but although prejudice is quite evident and something the protagonists struggle against, this is not a book that reflects and portrays the views of the time as realistically as possible but rather one that reflects the spirit of the time whilst avoiding what most readers nowadays would find repugnant. Even the “bad” characters are not as vocal and nasty as they would have been at the time in their epithets (and some of their actions), and I felt that the novel would be unlikely to offend modern sensibilities (as is to be expected, the most enlightened individuals are the main protagonists and their friends). I don’t mean that the topics are not serious and even shocking at times, especially for those not familiar with the era and its mores, but it is a good entry point read with plenty of characters determined to do the right thing we can root for.
Liz is a fantastic character. A self-made woman, she wants to become a doctor more than anything, but she sticks to her morals as well and thinks of others before she thinks of herself. She is very lucky (chance plays a big part in the story, and she has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, as well as a pretty lucky star), and despite her enemies (she comes across a few, and there are some surprises as well) from the beginning meets a cast of characters that will be fundamental to the story and are mostly there to help her achieve her goal. Amulya Patel becomes her friend and peer, and together they fight the prejudice against women they find at the medical school. We don’t know much about Amulya’s background, although we get some hints about her history and her circumstances, and the same is true for most of the other characters, whom we meet mostly as either helpers or hinderers of Liz’s adventures and quest to become a doctor. I liked Liz and Amulya, and many of the other characters they meet (Campbell, Hector, Charles, and Florian in particular), but this is a novel where we learn about the characters from their actions more than because we get access to their thoughts or psychological processes, for the most part. As this is the first novel in a serial, it is likely that we will get to learn more about the characters in future books, so it is not a big problem but rather gives us something to look forward to.
The story is written in the third-person, sometimes omniscient and sometimes from the point of view of one of the characters (plenty of them, even minor ones, get a chapter or a part of a chapter narrated from their point of view), and that gives us a pretty varied perspective while avoiding head-hopping, as each episode is clearly delimited. This also helps maintain the element of mystery, and although we don’t need to get to the end of the novel to learn what is happening (there are quite a few reveals and twists) and some of the secrets and surprises we might guess in advance, there are plenty more to come before the final page. I feel this story works well within its genre, as it alternates the investigation of the mysterious deaths with the story of Liz and Amulya’s adventures as medical students, and manages to keep a good pace and also to maintain the mystery. However, it might not work as well for readers used to modern police procedurals, because we have a lot depending on coincidence and chance, and I felt that the timing of the investigation didn’t always match the other events taking place, as Liz’s studies and knowledge seem to advance at an incredible speed while the investigation progresses at a much slower pace. As long as one is happy to work within the parameters of the story and stretch a little the suspension of disbelief, this is a rollicking good read.
With all those caveats in place, I confess to having had a great time reading this novel. I loved the ending, and I look forward to reading more novels in the series and, hopefully, catching up on the adventures of Liz and her friends in the future.
I’ve summarised my recommendations before, and as far as warnings go: there are gruesome murders; there is discussion of illnesses and medical procedures, evidently; there are historical events and descriptions of life in the period that are not always pleasant, but, as I said, I feel the book is adapted to modern sensibilities, and it successfully manages to be faithful to the period while avoiding reproducing some of the least savoury aspects of the era.
If you want to learn about the author’s source of inspiration and see some of the artwork he created for this book, you can check here:
Thanks to the author for the book and for the information he exchanged about other authors who write historical Scottish fiction, thanks to Rosie and her team for their ongoing support and inspiration, thanks to all of you for being reading, writing, sharing content, and for being part of a great community, and remember to keep smiling and keep safe!