The Blurb On The Back:
I know the smell of death well enough. But here the sweetness of decay was tainted with something else, something new and different. It was a curious, moist smell: a smell that spoke of the ooze and slap of water, of gurgling wet spaces and the sticky, yielding mud of low-tide.
Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain board the seaman’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition and murder are rife.
Embroiled in a dark and terrible mystery, Jem and Will embark on a quest to find the truth – but can they uncover the ship’s secrets?
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the early 1850s, several months after DARK ASYLUM. Jem Flockhart runs her own apothecary shop with her apprentice Gabriel Locke and remains close friends with Will Quartermain who still works as an architect. However, Jem’s double life in pretending to be a man, and her love for Eliza mean that she can never be to Will what he wants her to be.
One day Jem receives a note from her old student friend John Aberlady who works as apothecary on The Blood (a floating hospital that specialises in treating sailors and dock workers) begging her to come quickly. But the note was delayed in getting to her and when she arrives at The Blood, she discovers that Aberlady’s been missing for a week and Dr Sackville and Dr Birdwhistle, who run the hospital, are considering dismissing him.
Soon afterwards, Jem and Will discover the body of a young woman in the nearby Deadman’s Basin (where Will has been commissioned to build a new warehouse). The woman appears to have drowned, but Jem is concerned by some marks on the body and is sure that it’s connected with Aberlady’s disappearance.
To uncover the truth, Jem takes on Aberlady’s role on The Blood. and doing so brings her into contact with Dr Erasmus Proudlove (a black man seeking to make his career as a doctor) and his sister, Gethsemane, who helps to run an organisation set up by Dr Birdwhistle to rehabilitate fallen women. The more Jem digs into the running of The Blood, the more she realises that something sinister is going on and that someone will kill to prevent her from uncovering it …
The third in E. S. Thomson’s JEM FLOCKHART historical crime series is rich in period detail (especially in relation to medical practice of the time) and I really enjoyed the exploration of gender and race during this time but the plot sagged in the final quarter, with Jem doing some strange things for unconvincing reasons while the antagonist and their motives were a little under-baked, although I’d still check out the rest of the series.
I hadn’t read either of the previous books – DARK ASYLUM or BELOVED POISON – but Thomson gives enough information to understand what’s happened to Jem previously. It did take me a while to work out whether Will knew that Jem was actually a woman and although I wasn’t completely certain how she was able to convince everyone that she was a man in terms of her voice and how she handled her periods (sorry!), Thomson does a good enough job with showing her mannerisms that I bought into it.
Thomson has a Phd in the history of medicine and she does a great job of using her expertise within the book. I fully believed in the medical practices in the time and Thomson does a great job in showing how the profession is on the verge of professionalising with developments in scientific knowledge and the lines between apothecary, surgery and general practice all starting to sharpen and diverge. The autopsy scenes are very effective with Thomson conveying the smells and mercenary background to these events but also how necessary they were in advancing medical knowledge.
Racism and sexism are very much driving themes in the book and I think that Thomson handles them well – being sensitive to the thinking of the time but not shying away from the horrific double standards and behaviour on display, e.g. how poor women were taken advantage of an thrown to one side and how black people were seen as little better than animals by some people. Particularly interesting was a choice that Jem makes in respect of Dr Proudlove that is in keeping with the time and valid from a plot perspective but is very uncomfortable for a modern reader to excuse.
The plot was a little on the slow side for me, but I enjoyed the scene setting and the building of relationships while the extracts from confessions from the women seeking to reformed gave some interesting backstory and colour. However, I did think that things started to fall apart in the final quarter with Jem taking some strange decisions that seem to exist only to serve the plot (e.g. visiting an opium den) but more seriously, the revelation of the antagonist is quite low key and didn’t work given that – for me – they hadn’t been developed enough as a character on the page so I didn’t quite buy into their motivation.
That said, there was a lot that I liked about this book and I would definitely go back and check out the previous books in the series on the strength of it.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.