It is 1892, and the backstreets of Edinburgh are rife with disease. Sarah’s journey into medicine has been chequered: she’s left London and scandal behind her, and embarked on a career that neither her family, nor the male students she encounters in the bastions of Edinburgh’s university is happy about. But what Sarah hasn’t anticipated is the hostility of her fellow female doctors. No one is accepting of a fallen woman.
Then Sarah discovers the battered corpse of one of her own patients in the dissecting rooms, and she is drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers – and a confrontation with her own past. Even in medicine, Sarah realises, success comes at a price.
Medical crime mystery isn’t a new genre; Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series focus on a forensic scientist, and Patricia Cornwell has been writing about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta for over two decades now. Welsh’s innovation is to reset this same kind of story into a past when both medical and crime-solving knowledge were rather behind their present state…
Wages of Sin is centred on Sarah Gilchrist, who has been sent to Edinburgh to escape some disgrace in London whose nature is hinted at from the start of the novel but only revealed later on. Welsh writes her as something of a snob, and very driven; but she’s also an engaging character, with an absolute desire to be an independent woman engaging in the work of medicine. Those kinds of contradictions drive many of the other characters as well; Welsh shows women attacking other women not as a manifestation of misogyny, but as a self-defence mechanism. However, the male characters tend to be a bit flat, whether heroes or villains; they feel rather cardboard, as does everyone a little beside the fleshed out complexity of Sarah herself.
The plot of Wages of Sin is an interesting one, combining as it does a murder mystery with Sarah’s struggle to get through medical school. The medical side of things takes an increasing back seat as the novel progresses, which is rather frustrating, since it’s well researched and fascinating to see the obstacles Sarah faces as well as what she’s learning. The murder plot is where Welsh’s great strength lies; it takes us across the dark underbelly of Edinburgh as well as into some of its higher houses, and looks at conceptions of gender as an explicit element of the murders. The suspects change and shift, and so much of the chase is affected by Sarah’s preconceptions, which Welsh plays with very well. It’s unfortunate that Wages of Sin includes the developing romantic subplot that it does, given how poorly written that element is an how steeped it is in obvious cliche, and the way the novel ends is a little too convenient and trite, but overall the plot works and the clues are properly placed.
One thing that must be discussed is the way that Wages of Sin is an explicitly feminist novel. Welsh engages with the way women in the late 19th century were patronised and locked out of public life, by other women as well as by men; the way the legal system and social attitudes discriminated against them; and with homophobia. One of the things running through the whole novel is the attitude of 19th century Britain to rape, especially in the upper middle classes; Welsh deals with the topic sensitively, but doesn’t let the reader escape without realising how much some of those harmful attitudes persist.
The place where Welsh’s feminism falls down is in its engagement with sex work; Wages of Sin engages strongly in whorephobic language and models of sex work; this is partly due to its protagonist’s views, but the narrative never challenges those views, and indeed consistently upholds them as true. Given the engagement with sex work that is present in the novel, it would have been nice to have Welsh challenge the views of the society about which she is writing – which tend to be the views of our modern society, too.
In the end, Wages of Sin is a fun novel with a good crime caper at its heart, and a great medical student drama; the romance is overwritten and the ending is trite, but I look forward to seeing where Welsh goes next.
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