"The Book of Skulls" by David Hutchinson is to be the first in a series about Doctresses, the name given to women involved in medical training and practice in the second half of the 19th Century. It's 1875 and Liz Moliette; an orphan of unknown heritage and limited means, and Amulya Patel; the daughter of a wealthy Indian family, arrive in Edinburgh to study medicine. They are the only two women in their intake and embark on their studies not knowing whether they will even be allowed to graduate.
Liz and Amulya have the support of fellow student Campbell Preeble, and are soon championed by The Reekie reporter Hector Findlay and lecturer Dr Paul Love. Whilst their progress is hampered by the hostile attitude of senior staff member Professor Atticus, with his attempts to debar them from lectures and examinations, the two women face these difficulties together and refuse to be derailed by him and his growing band of supporters.
Liz's financial worries also conspire to scupper her, though here too, Amulya is her support. Fortuitously she meets and becomes assistant to the gruff lecturer and police surgeon Dr Florian Blyth. Their association leads Liz into forensic work and sees her involved in trying to solve a series of murders across the city, all seemingly without motive, but all obviously connected. As the body count mounts the race is on to find the gruesome killer and stop them, though, inadvertently, Liz finds herself on his hit list as the true motive for the crimes is revealed.
"The Book of Skulls" is a great read. One of the stars of the novel is the city of Edinburgh itself. The descriptions given of the characters’ movements around the city will be familiar to anyone who knows Edinburgh and will enhance the narrative even for those who don’t. Liz and Amulya are strong women made stronger by their support for one another. Their interactions with a wider cast of characters provides added depth to the story and allows the author to explore a range of topical issues of the time in an informative and believable way. There are some surprising twists and turns as the novel progresses and the fast pace keeps the reader turning the pages from beginning to end. "The Book of Skulls" can be highly recommended and it will be interesting to see how the series progresses as the story of Liz and Amulya moves to a new setting.