The Wages of Sin by Kaite Walsh (2017) 293 pages
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
“Once a respected, if rebellious, daughter of a financier, now I was a fallen woman in the eyes of society, a moral degenerate who aped men by studying medicine . . .” The degenerate in question is 27-year-old Sarah Gilchrist. Because of a scandal we only later come to understand, Sarah has been exiled from her home in London to Edinburgh by her wealthy parents. There, she lives with her Bible-thumping Aunt Emily and irascible Uncle Hugh, who barely tolerate her insistence on studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. To gain practical experience, Sarah moonlights at Saint Giles’ Infirmary for Women and Children in the city’s festering slums. There, she encounters a young prostitute named Lucy—only to find the young woman’s body a few days later on a slab at the medical school, ready for dissection.
Everyone except Sarah insists that Lucy had committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum. Sarah knows better. She can easily see the bruises on the young woman’s neck and wrists that make clear she had been violently restrained. Sarah sets out to learn the truth about what was obviously a murder. Her investigation brings her into conflict with the feared Professor Merchiston, the physicians at Saint Giles’ Infirmary, Lucy’s madam, and the police. In short order, Sarah finds herself caught up in the shadowy world of Edinburgh’s underworld, where prostitutes ply their trade and illegal abortionists abound. “This strange new world I had stumbled into had rules I could barely comprehend,” Sarah realizes. “Heaven knew that the regulations of polite society were beyond me half the time, and I was raised with them. But the connections, the unspoken arrangements, all these things that would have helped me make sense of Lucy’s life, and perhaps her death as well, were barred to me.”
The Wages of Sin works well as a murder mystery. The tale is suspenseful and well-executed. However, as historical fiction, the book is a notch above. Author Kaite Welsh dramatizes the misogyny of the era. The book is set in 1892, the first year women were accepted in the medical school at the University of Edinburgh. It’s difficult for me to assess whether the picture Welsh paints of near-universal Victorian disdain for women is accurate. But if it’s even half accurate, it’s painful to read. So is her portrayal of the deplorable state of medical education on the verge of the 20th century. The Wages of Sin is Welsh’s debut novel.
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