book: The Anatomy of Deception (2008) by Lawrence Goldstone

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In 1889, at the same as James Norton is chasing a killer and confronting his own demons in Paris in Lisa Appignanesi’s Paris Requiem, which by unusual coincidence I read just a few days ago, young surgeon Ephraim Carroll is undergoing rather similar adventures in Philadelphia.

What made The Anatomy of Deception especially interesting to me from the outset was that among its characters are several figures who’re important to the history of medicine, not least William Osler, about whom I knew little beyond the name and reputation until reading this novel — he’s one of those figures whose name I keep encountering while engaged in my own work. I now, thanks to The Anatomy of Deception and a couple of handy reference books, plus Wikipedia, know a little bit more . . . although I’m not sure I can face either Cushing’s or Bliss’s biography of the man, both those books being monumental.

Also of interest in this context, although less central to the tale, is the medical pioneer William Halsted, of note because he remained a brilliant surgeon despite being hopelessly addicted to opiates.

But I have digressed . . .

Ephraim is training under Osler at Philadelphia’s University Hospital. One day, during the course of a series of dissections there, he notices Osler reacting oddly to the sight of the next corpse in line at the morgue; even odder, Osler abruptly decides to conclude the day’s proceedings. One of the other young doctors present, George Turk, likewise seems startled on seeing the corpse. It’s a puzzle that Ephraim tries but fails to put to the back of his mind.

Soon after, however, Ephraim goes to Turk’s lodgings and finds the man dying. The death has all the symptoms of cholera, yet that diagnosis seems too trite to Ephraim. Sure enough, thanks to his suspicions, it’s revealed that Turk died of arsenical poisoning. It’s a case of murder!

In due course, as a result of the friendship — which escalates — of the hypnotically beautiful Abigail Benedict, Ephraim has a pretty clear hunch as to who the dead girl was and why Turk reacted so strangely in the morgue. But in order for him to tease out exactly what has been going on and to identify the murderer, Ephraim must tangle with thugs and thieves, “dancers” and danger, and even the then-notorious painter Thomas Eakins. And, despite his obsession with Abigail, the friendship steadily grows between him and another young doctor, Mary Simpson, unique among the hospital’s physicians in being a — gasp! — woman . . .

The Anatomy of Deception is a highly impressive debut for Goldstone, previously known for books in the history of science. Ephraim’s narration of his tale is quite convincingly 19th-century, which is to say that the prose may not be to everyone’s taste (especially those with short attention spans). A related and I think more serious problem is that the book does take a while to get going: the scene setting and the medical background information have fascination in their own right, but it seems to take far too long before Goldstone remembers that this is a mystery novel he’s supposed to be writing. That said, early perseverance is more than repaid once we get into the thick of things.

Should Goldstone ever feel inclined to write a sequel/companion novel to this one, I hope it’ll have Mary Simpson as its central character. Perhaps my major disappointment on turning the final page was that her story was left incomplete. As a women permitted — thanks to Osler — to work in what was then regarded as exclusively a male profession, she was a character who immediately drew me in. Because it takes Ephraim a while to recognize how sterling an individual she is, we see less of her in the novel than I’d have liked.

Goldstone has, I see, written a couple of other historical novels since this one (one of which, I’ve just realized, I actually own), and I’m now really quite keen to read them.

One caveat: Goldstone’s afterword on the history behind the novel is well worth reading but contains a truly massive spoiler.

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