Mini-Review: The Wages of Sin

Kaite Walsh's debut historical mystery The Wages of Sin is a slick, enthralling mashup of Jane Eyre and the Barker and Llwellyn series.

In London, Sarah Gilchrist had everything a young lady of position and wealth could ask for--dresses, ball invitations, and an admiring suitor.  But when she is raped by the man who supposedly loves her, society casts her out while simultaneously forgiving the rapist as just being a man.  After being raped, her family sends her to an asylum, just in case she were to be pregnant (which would be her fault, of course, because women who are raped are obviously responsible.  Victorians: they sucked).  Sarah endured  unimaginable "treatments" for her crime of being female.  And now, since she can fall no further, she's decided to pursue her true interest: medicine.

It's the end of the 19th century, and universities in the United Kingdom have finally agreed to grant degrees to female students.  Sarah travels to Edinburgh, Scotland to attend the University there, and is a member of the first class of female medical students.

But don't think that the university teaches men and women equally.  Due to their supposedly delicate constitutions, classes for women are taught separately from the men.  The professors sometimes flat-out refuse to teach the female classes.  And despite having chaperones to "protect their virtue," the female students are subject to monstrous harassment from the men.  As the cherry on top, one of Sarah's classmates has singled her out for abuse and taunting about her precarious social status.

So, it's actually a relief when she can leave the university grounds and head to her volunteer work at St. Giles's Infirmary for Women and Children, where she learns from Dr. Fiona Ledbetter.  Although St. Giles's is in a nasty part of town, Sarah's Aunt Emily approves of anything that keeps her niece away from men.  Bonus, all society ladies give a little golf-clap for performing charity work.

Most of the patients at the infirmary are prostitutes.  A girl named Lucy comes in and begs for an abortion, but Fiona refuses.  Something about the girl touches Sarah's heart, but there's really nothing they can do.  And so imagine her shock when Lucy's body ends up as a cadaver in one of her medical classes.  Sarah discovers that Lucy has been murdered, and is determined to find the killer.  At the same time, she has to continue passing her classes and not ticking off one of her more mercurial professors, Merchiston.

But as she digs deeper into the hell of Edinburgh's brothels, she notices Merchiston drunkenly frequenting the house where Lucy worked.  And he does have a temper ... but he is also dashingly dark and brooding and magnetic.  But is he a murderer?  The chemistry between both of them was very well done, and reminded me a lot of Jane and Mr. Rochester, but without the wife in the attic.

The mystery resolves nicely, if a bit predictably, and I almost wish I hadn't read this as an advance copy because now I want the second one in the series.  I hope that Sarah ends up beaning her awful aunt and uncle on the head with a bedpan or something.  Sarah does make some rather cringeworthy mistakes, and is rather a hothead, but I liked her very much as a character.  She possesses something that even her fellow female medical students mostly lack: compassion.

Walsh completely nails the atmosphere of bleak and dirty Dublin at the end of the 19th century (I intend no offense to my Scottish friends).  The muck and filth and rampant disease are portrayed without hesitation, and Sarah often finds herself covered in effluvia--and not during her dissection classes.  Victorian society's hypocrisy when it comes to sexuality comes to the fore when we find that it's completely acceptable for well-to-do men to frequent brothels, but completely unacceptable for a young woman to "ruin" herself by being raped.  I often reflect on the fact that although I very much enjoy reading books set in the 19th century, I would never, ever, ever wish to live back then.

This is an excellent debut--it comes out in March, so preorder now or ask your library to buy a copy!

I received an advance copy of this title from Edelweiss.


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