After a long wait, medical student Sarah Gilchrist is back. Welsh's feisty 19th-century proto-feminist fights to become a doctor in a traditionally male-dominated world. Like a garden maze, Sarah once again loses herself on the streets of Edinburgh, terrified of giving up her lectures and exams and her glittering surgical career. Her mother wants her to get a husband and have "a household to manage." Sarah hopes that "whatever remains of her brains" gets passed on to the next generation.
Beginning several months after Welsh's earlier novel, The Wages of Sin, Sarah is still studying at the University of Edinburgh, determined that nothing will distract her from her hours of lectures and dissections. She's still the girl from a year ago with a burning passion to study medicine and an unshakable belief that the world will grant her wish. It's hard to imagine that Gregory Merchiston is the same man who broke down in front of her in Elizabeth Chalmers' drawing room the previous autumn. From the drinking den to the boxing ring, "only god knows" where Sarah where might next find Gregory.
Outside of her studies, Sarah is cynically "celebrating the deus ex machina" of Aunt Emily and Aurora Greene. Both want to marry Sarah off to Miles Greene, the younger son of Colonel Cuthbert Greene. Miles would hardly have been Sarah's choice for a husband. Though she has mostly spurned the ghastly institution of marriage in favor of her medical studies, Sarah acknowledges that Miles has money and comes from a respectable family. Welsh excels in these early drawing room scenes, depicting a ramrod-straight Colonel Greene and Aurora, who outwardly beams the picture of maternal pride.
But the Greenes' stuffy Victorian pretentiousness is shattered when their maid, Clara Wilson, is murdered. Alasdair, Miles' older brother, tells the police that he hardly knew the girl. Colonel Greene spins a lie that perhaps Clara met her fate by meeting some man who easily turned her head. Though the scene is ghoulish, Sarah doesn't want to leave. If she was a man, her medical studies would be the object of praise rather than disgust. Whatever secrets Detective Randall and Merchiston uncover, Sarah wants to witness them: "I had seen firsthand how an enemy could disguise themselves as a friend, how evil could lurk beneath the most seemingly charming surface."
Among intimations that "horrid" Clara stole from Aurora, Sarah fights to be a part of Clara's post-mortem. Murders usually come down to one of two things: finances or passion. Alasdair stood to inherit much more on his father's death. Scandal rocks the Greene family with a terrible discovery of venereal disease and the revelation that Colonel Greene was a whoremonger and blackguard and reprobate. Poisoning seems to be alive and well, dividing its time between the upper-class Greene House and the strange, furtive goings-on in Edinburgh's back-alley brothels.
Welsh weaves together the 19th-century restrictions on women with sensitively imagined fiction to create a landscape that helps us fully understand the time and place in which Sarah lives. Sarah has more medical knowledge under her corset than most of her male contemporaries combined. She may be, as a female, a pawn in her mother's game of marriage, but she hopes at some point to gain her independence by playing along skillfully. What she wants, she tells us, is to solve Clara's murder, to be happy in her studies, and to be healed of the brokenness she feels, when she finally realizes there is no point in sheltering Miles from his family's secrets anymore.
Feisty Sarah doesn't quite know what the life of a single woman will look like. She absolutely refuses to place her fate into the hands of men like Miles or even Gregory: "Would I be the fast-dissolute hussy of my mother's imagination or the tragic withered spinster of the popular press?" Sarah refuses to believe that she'll ever be happy in the meticulous life her mother has planned out for her--a marriage of convenience arranged purely to keep the gossips at bay.
For now, Sarah's reality are the dead bodies on the mortuary slab, the grisly, ghostly emblems of a mystery that she can solve. Merchiston must be satisfied to love her from afar as he attempts to help her solve two ghastly murders. Welsh does a great job of turning Sarah's plain, steady, and compelling voice into art, leaving me impatient, desperately waiting for more.