The Anatomist’s Apprentice – Tessa Harris, Simon Vance

 

What: Audible credit spent (and refunded, bless them)
What else: Audible is really wonderful about returns.
Wherefore: I love Simon Vance. It’s not his fault, though.

It’s a sad fact that my complainy reviews are often much longer than my happy ones. Perhaps it’s easier to see where something goes off the tracks than to see why something stays humming along; that might be part of why there are so few truly great books. Perhaps it’s just catharsis to – in the language of this book – perform a thorough post-mortem on a bad book. Or perhaps it’s just more fun to eviscerate a truly bad book. Don’t know.

The plot: young Lord Edward Crick dies abruptly and hideously. He was a nasty piece of work, and had been syphilitic for more than half his short life, so most assume that’s what did him in – until rumors begin circulating that he was poisoned. There are lots of people who were not sorry to see him die in agonies, but one is a better suspect than the rest: Captain Michael Farrell, Crick’s roué brother-in-law. As things begin to look ugly for him, Crick’s sister Lydia appeals to a cousin, a medical student in London, and the cousin turns to a young instructor, the transplanted Colonial Thomas Silkstone, renowned for his work as an anatomist. Thomas cannot resist a lady in distress, and brings to bear all his now-primitive then-advanced techniques to try to find the killer. And of course along the way he falls for the lady.

This story as a whole reminds me strongly of a combination of Garrow’s Law – with the illicit affection between the brilliant young professional and the noble married lady (though Lydia is a completely different species from strong, intelligent Lady Sarah Hill) – Murder Rooms about Dr. Joseph Bell, and Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series thrown in. I enjoyed the beginning well enough, but … that, unfortunately, sank under the weight of issues with the story-telling. By the halfway point I just wanted to know who was supposed to have killed the jerk and how (which answer, unsurprisingly, was not worth the wait). There were problems with the style that began as minor annoyances and escalated to near painful levels.

The writing is very deliberate and occasionally redundant. Harris does not hesitate to use the same word several times in a short stretch. Some characters’ every move is described with superfluous detail. It seems to me there are lots of places where a better chosen phrase might have made such blow-by-blow stage directions unnecessary. It seems like a very amateurish mistake, that of a writer bound and determined that her reader know precisely how a scene played out in her head. This is a writer who doesn’t trust her readers, I think.

In the same vein, there are a number of eye-roll-inspiring Captain Obvious moments – a character puts a finger to his lips, and the narrator carefully explains that this meant he wanted someone to be quiet; two men sit at a table glaring at each other after chapters of rapidly developing antagonism, capped by a sentence laying out the fact that the one doesn’t like the other. “Lydia was confused. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said …” Which I believe is the definition of being confused.

I made a note of this pair of lines, for several reasons:

“Putting his hand to his forehead he felt a warm trickle of liquid gushing from a wound just above his left eye. It was a feeling so familiar to him he did not need to see the color of it to know it was blood.”

A “trickle … gushing”? Isn’t that contradictory? The feeling is familiar to him – how? Is he beaten often? (I wouldn’t be surprised; I wanted to beat him by the end.) I suppose it’s from stitching up the injured – but – I guess my point is, why would it take familiarity with the feel of blood to deduce that warm liquid trickling/gushing from a spot that hurts might – no guarantees, mind – be blood? This … I was going to call it a fight, but it was almost entirely one-sided; this beating seemed to leave Thomas a great deal of time to look about him and take in his surroundings. It was a very strangely constructed scene. It also set the tone for much of the rest of the book: every time there’s a bit of a lull it seems the author’s reaction is to have someone beaten or otherwise hurt.

Some passages are not for the faint of heart. This might be inevitable given that the main character, Thomas Silkstone, is an anatomist (medical examiner), but squeamish readers ought to be aware that the detail here, as in the stage direction, is extreme. There are flies and maggots, and stinks and gases, and all sorts and kinds of viscera in all sorts of condition belonging to all conditions of people. (There is never a time when my throat doesn’t close a little if maggots are involved.) There are situations in which Silkstone, a consummate professional with solid control of himself, becomes queasy, by which you can imagine the descriptions. Or not. Best not.

Simile is almost comically overused. In places the word “like” appeared at least once in every paragraph – there were long stretches where everything was being compared to everything. Part of one paragraph: “Oxford lay beneath them like a gleaming necklace of cream-colored knuckle bones threaded on a tendon of river that ran through a narrow valley below… The young doctor peered out of the window like an eager child …” *sigh*

meow

The language used to describe human organs was especially rather extraordinary. I don’t think I mean in a good way; I’m too puzzled by some of it to really even know. I never thought of the liver as proud, for example, and the extended description of the stomach at one point is just peculiar. A specimen heart is “the bulbous organ”, described as this “once garrulous, now silent heart”. Garrulous: “excessively talkative, or wordy” – so …huh? It was “like a strange exotic fruit waiting to be cut”, and a moment later Thomas poised, “about to enter the red pavilion of the heart”. I can’t remember which organ was called “lumbering”, but the worst, the very worst, was “the old woman’s liver, crouched like some sleeping cat deep in the abdomen”. That proud, feline liver.

Some similes were used more than once, and while some were clichés (a (still living) heart thumps like a drumbeat), some were weird enough – and repetitious enough – to stand out:

“Once he had finished cutting, he folded the large flap of skin back so that it lay like a square of crimson silk on the dead man’s chest” and “the velvety mucosa lay folded like a bolt of rich, red fabric”.

And

– “The professor listened sagely, like a priest hearing a confession” (particularly odd, since not one of the characters seemed to be Catholic)
– “When he performed in front of students in the anatomy theater he was a priest. His chalice was a knife and the actions he executed were rituals; above reproach and incontrovertible. His unquestioning congregation held him in awe.”
– “As parishioners look to their priest during their act of worship, so did they regard Professor Hans Hascher. He now stood poised before them, no chalice but a knife in hand, like some hierophant about to perform the most invasive of rituals.”

One elderly character’s hair is described as “grizzly”. I’m assuming it isn’t grisly. Although … he is an anatomist … hygiene standards were lower … No, the same adjective is later used for someone else’s hair. So “grizzly”. Like the bears. (Actually, it is technically right: gray or grayish. I would have used “grizzled” (or simply “graying”), though. Because, you know, bears.)

Oh my lord, now that I have found a place to check it I have done so. It IS “grisly”. Wow.

There is a fair amount of awkwardness when two or more men are in the same scene – which is often. “He” and “him” become very muddled. It doesn’t help that point of view skips merrily from head to head. I felt for Simon Vance; he had a time keeping up, I think, from a few times when I could hear an accent shift in mid-sentence. He’s a pro, but you can only work with what you’ve got.

One small but rather serious note: it took me a little while to pay attention to it, but Thomas, from Philadelphia, is often referred to (by the narrator, not by ignorant fellow characters) as “the New Englander”. I purposely listened to the beginning again: he is from and of Pennsylvania. New England does not and never has included or referred to Pennsylvania. That hurt a little every time I heard it.

Similarly, Captain Michael Farrell is Irish. He is read with an Irish accent, his voice is often described as having a brogue, the adjective most used about him is “Irish”. Yet – about as often as “New Englander” is used – his charm is described as “Gallic”. The French and the Irish have often had a close working anti-British relationship, but to my knowledge they have never been interchangeable. Unless … there is the smallest possibility that this is how Simon Vance reads “Gaelic” – but he’s not stupid. (Nope: it’s “Gallic”.)

Then there’s the rat (not Farrell, a real rat). Thomas rescued a rodent from experimentation, named it after Benjamin Franklin (!), and talks to it all the time. The latter was, I believe, meant to be whimsical and show how nice and approachable Thomas is; in practice, though, I was just increasingly embarrassed for him. And so of course the rat rewards its pampering by making a contribution to the research into what killed Lord Crick. Not, happily, the overly-coincidental pivotal role I was very much afraid it would be, but even so without the rat things would have gone differently. And that’s another problem. The rat, a little boy’s whims, sheer chance and happenstance take a big role in the … “investigation”. While this might be somewhat realistic – coincidences happen all the time, and accidents – it doesn’t make for good story-telling to rely so heavily on such events.

I’m sure there were plenty of Colonials in England while the Revolution continued. Travel wasn’t a light matter. But Thomas’s presence there in 1780 just seems very odd to me. At one point in the story some rough men in a tavern catch his accent and there are rumblings against him as a filthy Colonial – although when he lectures a classroom the students are described as being unable to identify his accent, and in another chapter he is said to have hardly any accent at all. Still, I doubt there would be very many folk in England in that time who would welcome a young proto-American with open arms… and yet, despite the casualty lists and diminishment of English holdings he would represent, they do. More to my point, though, is the question of why he himself feels it’s perfectly all right to be there. His politics are left out of the equation, but unless he was completely lacking in all patriotism or is antipathetic to the Revolution (well, he did name his rat after an American hero) I would think a man – especially a man as young as Silkstone – would feel some duty to be home lending his considerable skills to the Cause.

There was a predictability amounting to inevitability to some scenes, and really the story as a whole. In one scene, Thomas noted that someone is sleeping soundly. I immediately reacted with “He’s dead.” I didn’t guess the details, but I was ultimately right. As the case reached a dead end, a little deus (or infantus) ex machina was introduced; as this pushed the investigation in a new direction, it was as though ideas ran out and new corpses began popping up. A cheap trick was played on the reader – I could almost hear the author chortling “Ha! Fooled you!” Yes, you did. It was tacky. Shut up. A cheap trick was also played on a main character – but by that point I didn’t feel sorry for him. By that point I thought all the characters were fools, all weak, and I couldn’t wait to be shut of the lot of them.

Yes, of course I need to expound on this. There will be spoilers, I daresay, so if despite all my slander it’s still something you might read, skip on, fair reader.

Lydia: good grief. I know it was not encouraged for a woman to have backbone in the 1700’s, but good grief. I’m sure it would be anachronistic for a well-born woman to be viewed and treated as, you know, a woman rather than as a child, or for a woman to protest such treatment, but after my initial disgust at an adult woman being assigned a guardian in the event of her husband’s death my secondary disgust is for the woman who tolerates this. The woman’s entire personality seems to be encompassed in the oft-repeated adjectives “fragile” and “delicate” (oh, and “doe-eyed”, heaven help us). She faints or otherwise has recourse to smelling salts very frequently. The closest thing to character she demonstrates is when she pitches a fit over seeing a rat. The marital rape she submits to was considered her duty, and I won’t blame the character for what seems to be a bit of ugly historical accuracy. The fact that she still harbors affection, or at least loyalty, for the pig she’s married to is, I think, partly an inability to see the situation in a modern way and partly stupidity disguised as a big heart. Maybe he bought her things after raping her; I don’t know.

This doesn’t explain how she continues to feel affection for her dead brother, who may not have raped her but seems to have terrorized every other non-related female for miles (and did I mention he was syphilitic? What’s the transmission rate for “the French pox”, anyway? About 50%?). He was slime; he seems to have been given no redeeming qualities. Yet she is prostrated by his death. There’s no reasoning behind it; if there had been one sentence like “Yes, he was a scum-sucking pox-ridden appalling waste of flesh, but Edward had had a sweet disposition before his hormones kicked in, and it was for the little boy that Lydia wept” – that would have helped a little. I loathed the way her “affair” with Thomas was handled. She transitions without any intervening development from the good little wifey who, again, does not hate her husband whatever he’s done, to a slutty little number who drags Thomas into her bedroom and plasters herself to him. If she’s got enough backbone to do that, she should have had more backbone in her other actions.

Captain Farrell kept giving me whiplash. He’s a cad who hits on the maids and rapes his wife when she shows reluctance to oblige him; he seems to genuinely care about her and is kind and gentle. He gambles incessantly, and married Lydia purely for the money; he seems like he might be a good manager of the estate, and genuinely cares about it. If it had been better written this might be seen as an example of the complexity of a human psyche. It wasn’t written terribly well, so it comes off as a muddle.

There is no such ambiguity about James Lavington, Farrell’s friend who was injured horribly in some mysterious incident during military service, leaving him with half a face full of shrapnel and a prosthetic nose made of ivory (which must make it awkward when getting a tan). Women back away from him when he enters a room; Our Hero dislikes him, so he must be bad. He is almost a cliché of evil, because of course a man so dramatically disfigured must be one of two extremes: either the saintly soul despised by the ignorant who can’t see past his ugliness, or a limping twisted creature straight out of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

(About that mysterious incident: it was typical of Harris’s style that the details of what happened to Lavington were kept secret till nearly the end, despite hints dropped with the lightness of anvils. Which would have been fine, and in keeping with the genre, except that the way it was kept secret was more like “The explosion – no one told you? Ah. Well I’m not going to either, nyah.”)

Thomas Silkstone … I wanted to like Thomas. He’s the hero. He’s the dashing young scientist, admired by all, worshiped by his students. (Literally, as seen in quotes above.) Ah – and there’s the problem: he has more than a touch of the Gary Stu. The only flaw in the dashing young … New Englander … is that he falls in love with a married woman. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a big honking flaw – especially in an age such as the one this is set in – and it’s also handled foolishly: really, Thomas? You’re just slipping down the hallway to Lydia’s door to see if she needs something to help her sleep while her husband is in jail? Of course. Even there, though, Virtue Wins Out, and he gently pushes her away, and of course they merely lie beside each other, intensely frustrated, for a few hours. (See, at that point I just wanted to throttle them both. It was astonishingly stupid for him to be in her bedroom at all. If they had been discovered, no amount of “look! We’re still dressed!” would have helped; they would both have been ruined. Basically, at that point, they were committed; they might as well have been hung for sheep as lambs.) Thomas presents as a wishy-washy twit who despite years of medical training couldn’t find his rear end with both hands.

This actually serves to make a little sense of the title, which does not otherwise make sense: why is Thomas still described as an apprentice? He’s in his mid-twenties; he has been in London for seven years; his mentor is now retired, and Thomas is actively teaching, performing autopsies, and treating patients. Doesn’t sound like an apprentice to me.

The first minutes/pages of the book make an oblique claim that Silkstone was real, that modern historians overlook him but that he should get credit for vast swathes of forensic science. I haven’t performed an exhaustive, and won’t; this isn’t worth my time. But if he was real, he’s poorly done by here. If he wasn’t real, then the author’s pretense that he was means that this book doesn’t deserve the one star I have to give it.

One last note: when I gave the story one star on Audible, a message popped up expressing sympathy that I didn’t like it, and would I like to return it? Would I! And so I did. I like Audible’s style.

 

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5 Responses to The Anatomist’s Apprentice – Tessa Harris, Simon Vance

  1. Brennan Dogge says:

    I’m plowing my way through this book now, not really able to articulate why I hated the writing style so much, but finally driven mad by her repeated misuse of the word “Gallic” to describe someone Irish, I had to go google her to see if anyone else had ranted about this. Thank you, I feel much better now.

  2. stewartry says:

    Heh – glad to be of service. That made me crazy.

  3. Could I hire you to read my manuscript before I send it in to my publisher? Wow!

  4. stewartry says:

    I was thinking of trying just that out as a sideline. :)

  5. pooks says:

    Thank you for articulating many of my frustrations with this book!

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