I could not resist a novel that purported to examine eighteenth-century medical practice and the world’s first coroner. This novel fulfills its promise and does even a bit more.
The Anatomist’s Apprentice
In Tessa Harris’s debut novel, The Anatomist’s Apprentice (310 pages, Kensington Mystery, $15), Thomas Silkwood, a real eighteenth-century scientist, is just becoming fascinated with the science of anatomy. He is an American who has come to England to study death. That is, he is interested in looking at the tissue of the deceased and figuring out what science has taught him that can give him clues to the cause of death.
Thomas is a handsome and slightly other-worldly scientist type who lives in his laboratory and talks to his pet white rat. His mentor is a well-known surgeon who thought nothing of buying dead bodies off the street for the purposes of anatomical study. Now that he is losing his sight, he offers Thomas what help he can with his other senses, such as his ears and his nose, and times those aids become invaluable.
Before much has happened in the novel, Thomas gets involved with a suspicious death at a country house near Oxford. A young earl is suddenly taken ill and dies in a scene spectacularly grotesque and painstakingly described. Bulging eyes and foaming at the mouth suggest something suddenly shutting down the body’s functions, and poison is suggested by more than one observer. But try as he might, Thomas cannot determine the exact cause of death, and instead he finds himself having to admit to dismiss various potential causes for the very reason that his science proves them untenable.
It matters more and more to Thomas as he finds himself sexually attracted to the earl’s sister, a married woman by the name of Lady Lydia Farrell. Thomas and Lady Farrel herself imagine that her aggressive and unpleasant husband, Captain Michael Farrel, may have been the cause of the earl’s death. After all, he was set to inherit, through his wife, the estate and all its appurtenances. But Thomas, for concrete reasons, comes to think he is not the murderer, even though he is sure that a murder has been committed.
As Captain Farrel’s trial approaches, Thomas tries to race against the clock to find out something more about the cause of death, but when he does, the clues send him in a direction he had no desire to pursue, and it leaves him further than ever from his darling Lydia. When Thomas is seen emerging form the Lady’s bedroom late at night, servants talk and Thomas ends up being made to feel unwelcome at the house.
The murder is finally solved, and Thomas and Lydia are allowed to decide whether they can allow themselves to mean anything to each other given all the ways in which they are better off apart: class, nationality, and married state, for starters.
Tessa Harris is obviously fascinated with the science she has to describe, and she does a good job of making clear what kinds of things Thomas knows and what he doesn’t know. As a romance the story leaves a lot to be desired, and that is in part because Lady Lydia does not seem like a fully realized character. She is fine as Thomas’s fantasy, because in that she is only what he imagines. But when Harris tries to give us her perspective or suggest how she feels, I was not fully persuaded. But I am also ready to give the author the benefit of the doubt and to hope that the next time out she will concentrate more on this side of things. In this novel, she has given us a lot, and she has also given us a lot to look forward to.
The Anatomist’s Apprentice is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.