Paperback reviews: The Art of Dying; Cutting Edge; Outrages

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THE ART OF DYING

Ambrose Parry (Black Thorn, £8.99)

Writing under the name Ambrose Parry, Chris Brookmyre and his wife, anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman, follow up 2018’s The Way of all Flesh with another 19th-century Edinburgh-based medical thriller. It’s 1850, and Will Raven, a protégé of the renowned Dr James Simpson in the previous book, has returned from Europe to become Simpson’s assistant. His love interest, Sarah Fisher, has progressed from maid to nurse, but has also married, making their reunion somewhat awkward. Nevertheless, they join forces to try to clear Simpson’s name when he is accused of negligence resulting in a patient’s death and get drawn into a plot based on a real-life murder case. Brookmyre and Haetzman have crafted a compelling story that sees its heroes struggling not just against a scheming murderer but also the prejudices of their age, and they don’t forget to pull away the rug just when you think you’ve got it figured out.

CUTTING EDGE

Edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Pushkin Vertigo, £10.99)

In a bid to find out if there is a specific, distinctive voice to noir fiction when written by women comes this collection of short stories by 15 authors, augmented by six poems on macabre themes by Margaret Atwood. Not surprisingly, the authors (who include Aimee Bender, Elizabeth McCracken, Edwidge Danticat and Oates herself) overturn the generic archetypes of femme fatale and victim, updating them with empowered women taking control of their narratives in a variety of roles. Men, for once, become objects of the female gaze – and, because it’s noir, in dark and chilling ways. The one story with a male protagonist, Bernice L McFadden’s “OBF, Inc”, is slyly and wittily subversive. All of the writers here have risen to the challenge with relish, repurposing the tropes and cliches of noir in diverse ways and bringing a shot of sharpness and vitality to a tired old genre.

OUTRAGES

Naomi Wolf (Virago, £16.99)

Outrages began life as a thesis on the gay Victorian poet John Addington Symonds, ending up as a study of the 19th-century moral hysteria surrounding sexuality. The shine was taken off its initial publication when it emerged that Wolf had misinterpreted court records to mean that dozens of men had been executed for sodomy. Still, even taking her errors into account, she deserves credit for such a full account of a climate in which state intrusion on the body manifested itself not merely in literary censorship but in harsher legislation on homosexuality, divorce and prostitution and new measures under which women could be detained and intimately examined to prevent the spread of disease. While it focuses on Symonds, Outrages draws Whitman, the Rossettis, Swinburne and Havelock Ellis, alongside others who dared dream of a more tolerant society, into a story that cries out to be heard.

ALASTAIR MABBOTT

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