In 1780, Thomas Silkstone, a young American surgeon and anatomist, is invited by Lydia to establish the cause of death of her brother, Lord Crick, a dissolute who held the Oxfordshire estate that she will inherit. Her goal is to absolve her husband of the suspicion of murder; however, as the investigation proceeds, it increasingly seems that her husband is guilty after all.

 The earnest young doctor methodically examines each new lead—performing experiments on tissues and with various poisons in his effort to determine the cause of death – and in so doing solve a murder. Before long, another person is dead and Thomas is in love with Lydia, a scarcely concealed complication that calls his testimony into question.


Based on a real trial form 1781 Warwick, this engaging, anatomical mystery (and love story) recreates the atmosphere of eighteenth-century anatomical and chemical science with its reeking, insect-infested corpses and social opprobrium. References to Andreas Vesalius, John Hunter, and the work (if not the person) of William Withering are scattered throughout. Many false leads allow for the consideration of poisons--laurel water, cyanide, digitalis, and fungi--as they were understood at that moment in time.  

The author has a degree in history and has effectively created interesting, plausible characters and the medical science of the era. Class differences between masters and their more intelligent, if less powerful servants form an interesting angle.  Another aspect that might provoke discussion is the use of disability and disfigurement as motives for revenge and crime. Do all villains need to be ugly? And why does the author bestow on a character the name “Francis Crick”?

The tale is only slightly marred by unnecessary claims to priority and a few medical errors. For example, the author states that the inspirational Warwick trial was “the first ever known occasion when an expert witness –in this case, an anatomist--was called” (Acknowledgements). In fact, anatomical and chemical science had long been used in legal settings. Similarly, Vesalius was not “the first to perform postmortem dissections” (p. 105)—and the aorta carries fresh blood away from – not to—the heart (p. 161). These foibles aside, the novel makes exciting use of medical history and constitutes an invitation to explore it more thoroughly.  

The trial of John Donellan that inspired this story has figured in a number of articles and books. Unfortunately the novel—being a novel—does not provide a bibliography, although a chapter-by-chapter glossary is helpful. For further reading see for example, Katherine D. Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 113; James Fitzjames Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England (London Macmillan, 1883 and Cambridge University Press, reprint 2014), vol. 3, pp. 371-88.


Kensington Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count