While the first-year students numbered well over a hundred, only a dozen of us were female. A dozen too many, if our critics were to be believed.
The Wages of Sin, the debut novel by Scottish journalist Kaite Walsh, will be a welcome new find for any fan of historical mysteries. Protagonist Sarah Gilchrist, a London gentlewoman with a traumatic history, becomes one of the first group of female students to attend University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892. Sarah’s beset by difficulties on all sides; not only are women unwelcome by professors and classmates alike, but Sarah has been unfairly marked out as a ‘fallen woman.’ At best most of the other women avoid her company; at worse, like aristocrat Julia Latymer or proud, proletarian student Moira, they call her a slut.
Which is why, while volunteering as a nurse at the Saint Giles Infirmary for Women in order to get more experience, may be grueling duty, it’s also a welcome reprieve for Sarah. The destitute, the downtrodden, and the whores who frequent Saint Giles may not be genteel company, but as Sarah notes they at least talk to her. But when prostitute Lucy, turns up on the dissection table of the school the very day after Sarah saw her as a patient, Sarah becomes obsessed with learning the truth about her death. Her journey takes her from brothels, to opium dens, to homes for wayward girls, while Sarah also reluctantly navigates her way Edinburgh society. Along the way she makes new allies but also encounters new threats.
With The Wages of Sin, Walsh delivers not only an engrossing historical mystery, but also an insightful look into how gender, class, and female competition, as well as sisterhood, all interact in the real world. It’s also compulsively readable and I finished it in practically one sitting. The ending suggests that this is intended to be the start of a series of novels starring the indomitable Sarah and, if so, I for one am down for the ride.
The Wages of Sin
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