In this debut novel set in 18th-century Scotland, a group of physicians gets caught up in disease, murder, and political intrigue.
As smallpox sweeps through Edinburgh, headstrong physician Malcolm Forrester is determined to run a study to test one of his hypotheses: that inoculating people with smallpox scabs will make them immune to the illness. Some physicians gather with him to use themselves as test subjects, but they face violent opposition from Sir Robert Turnbull, the change-fearing head of the College of Physicians; radical clerics; and the captain of the guard, Donald Mackmain, who believes the doctors are meddling with God’s will. Meanwhile, a “healer” named Elspeth MacLeod arrives in the Scottish village of Torrport to take on some of Malcolm’s patients, and quickly gets entangled in local intrigue. A woman named Lady Julianne, a relation of the leader Laird MacDuff, arrives at Elspeth’s door one rainy night and gives birth to a premature baby. After examining the woman, who survives, Elspeth suspects Julianne was poisoned. Then the laird’s second-in-command, Capt. John Spence, is found face down in a laundry tub, dead, with a bar of soap in his mouth. When Malcolm and Elspeth attempt to investigate who would want Julianne and Spence dead and why, they uncover surprising hidden ties between certain residents of the town and the Russian czar. Marsolais and Twigg pack their novel with an impressive amount of research on a very specific place and time (the spring of 1705) and its clothing, weaponry, and transportation. They also include a wealth of details about practicing medicine in that period: everything from the accepted way to treat a fistula to the era’s surgical instruments. While some of the political context has the ring of a textbook and Malcolm’s speech is riddled with comma splices (“Can’t blame him, he’s a wife and family, the rest of us are young with no dependents, expendable”), the tale is filled with lively sword fights, Scottish brogues, and colorful characters. Elspeth is especially memorable: she’s gutsy and competent, chafing against a bygone century’s restrictions on female physicians.
A convincing window into a particularly vibrant period of Scottish history.