Book Review: The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

I came across the Wages of Sin some time ago and, intrigued by its setting and subject matter, put it on my long ‘to be read’ list. Then, a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear author Kaite Welsh read from her book at a Noir at the Bar event in Edinburgh. I loved what I heard so much that I went home and started reading this book straight away – a decision I’m glad I made, since I absolutely adored this story.

The tale is a first person narrative, told from the point of view of Sarah Gilchrist, a young woman with a difficult past who is determined to become a doctor, despite the barriers and social stigmas of the late Victorian society she inhabits. Welsh’s Sarah is well-drawn; she is brave, resilient and just the right amount of vulnerable. As a reader it was very easy to get inside Sarah’s head and to see her world as she saw it – as frustrating as that was, at times! There are some great supporting characters too, from the brooding Professor Merchiston to the catty and snooty Julia Latymer. Welsh does an excellent job of making even the most unlikable character a touch sympathetic, whilst ensuring that in terms of the mystery, the reader remains as blind to their worst flaws and darkest secrets as Sarah is, until that crucial moment when the truth and the killer is revealed…

The setting for the story is 1890s Edinburgh, and Welsh does a masterful job of evoking the sights and smells of the ancient city, thick with slums, and contrasting this with the orderly and more privileged (but no less debauched) new town. As a piece of historical fiction this novel is superb, with Welsh firmly setting Sarah’s sleuthing tale in the context of the time, tackling issues from poverty and deprivation, to the social conflict surrounding female emancipation and sexuality with impressive sympathy and accuracy. At times it was hard not to feel as though I had been transported back to 1892!

A highly enjoyable read – I am looking forward to the next installment in the series already. Five stars.

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