The desire to blend fact with fiction is apparent in the pen-name

25 Feb 2021

By Loretta Mulholland

The Way of All Flesh (2018) by Ambrose Parry is the first book in the series about medical student Will Raven, written by husband and wife team, Chris Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman. Each initially faced challenges of transition and decision making as this conversation with Professor Ross Deuchar of the University of the UWS, fuelled by fabulous audience questions, revealed. Chris explained how he likes to take real characters and speculate on what might have happened, whereas Marisa, coming from a medical background, found it hard to steer away from the truth. The desire to blend fact with fiction is also apparent in their pen-name, inspired by Ambroise Paré a leading 16th century French surgeon; it also seemed gender ambiguous and therefore suitable for their joint authorship.

Their three novels, including The Art of Dying (2019) and A Corruption of Blood are set in the context of 1840s Edinburgh and centre around the work of actual surgeon Dr James Young Simpson, who became best known for pioneering the use of chloroform, particularly as an anaesthetic in childbirth. His use of it was controversial and experimental and when asked if they would take the risks he did - testing chloroform on himself – Marisa gave an emphatic ‘No!’

The inclusion of real people – James McLevy, George Keith and James Matthews Duncan – was a conscious one. The difficulty was who not to include, as there was so much discovery, invention and crime in these times. Inspector McLevy was, Chris argued, borderline corrupt, therefore he felt justified in treating him disrespectfully but Simpson himself could not be treated this way. Duncan’s rivalry with Simpson was a genuine issue and inspired the plot for the second book. The fictional characters provided purpose as well as plot; Raven, as Simpson’s assistant, can explain the story of the real physician and Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s housekeeper, is a strong and intelligent woman, seeking autonomy, who reminds us that the roots of feminism go further back than we might assume.

When asked about characters’ names, Chris explained how he wanted a ‘badass’ name for his protagonist, who has a dark side so Raven was an easy choice. Marisa was more methodical and looked up the Edinburgh PO directory for common period names for the character of Sarah. The issue of feminism inspired the next question on why they chose a female villain for their second book. This decision was influenced by 19th century nurse Jane Toppan, who poisoned many patients and got away with it for so long, Marisa speculated, because of Victorian perceptions of women as ‘angels’ and ‘nurturing’ while criminology was perceived as a male thing.

On the question of the nurture/nature debate, Marisa doesn’t believe people are born bad but that they do ‘bad things’ after ‘bad things’ happen to them. Chris agreed but he pointed out that environmental experiences could be an influence. He referred to the book, The Worm in the Bud by Ronald Peasall, which highlights the conflicting values of Victorian double standards and demonstrates that abuse could be manifested by repeated humilities having an accumulative effect on the psyche. He also talked about research carried out in WW2 which revealed that a small percentage of people were able to ‘switch off’ empathy in order to kill an enemy.

This brought us to the question of morality within gangs and gang characters Flint (leader) and Gargantua (member). Marisa thought that there was a definite ‘code of honour’ within gangs, which was essential to them trusting each other. Gargantua is eventually seen to be a man of compassion, who has been affected by the torment he has suffered on account of his size and by being considered ‘different’. This led to a discussion of the question of assisted dying which Marisa believed was an ethical problem even in Victorian times, when people could reach a stage of being mortally wounded and nothing more could be done.

Writing influences included Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Snowcrash and The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson for Chris, whereas Marisa preferred historical fiction such as This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.

The final question was about the future; Chris’ new novel, The Cut will be coming out on 4th March, followed a few months later by A Corruption of Blood but even now, the fourth in the Raven series is in production.

This was a truly riveting hour, packed with fact and fiction and fleshed out by wonderful audience participation.

If you missed Chris Brookmyre and Dr. Marisa Haetzman: UWS in conversation with ‘Ambrose Parry’ you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Chris and Ambrose Parry's books are all available here to purchase

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