The Unquiet Heart

Kaite Welsh

Tinder Press, £18.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Detectives face all sorts of obstacles while going about their investigations, but surely none have had to cope with the burdens weighing down amateur sleuth Sarah Gilchrist, introduced in Welsh’s previous novel, The Wages of Sin. A woman choosing to study medicine in Edinburgh in the 1890s has to be made of stern stuff to withstand the daily barrage of condescension and hostility directed towards her for pursuing such an “unladylike” goal. And Sarah has even more to bear than the other women on her course. The previous year, back home in England, she was raped, and is considered by her parents to be ruined for life and a stain on the family name.

Now living with her aunt and uncle in Edinburgh (also Welsh's home town) Sarah is under constant surveillance, her opinions treated with disdain and the notion that she might have any medical knowledge worth listening to brusquely brushed aside. Given the restrictions imposed on her, any progress she can make in a murder case is a victory in itself. Even something as basic as comparing notes with her fellow sleuth Gregory Merchiston is a huge challenge at a time when an unmarried woman is forbidden to be in the same room as a man without a chaperone.

Trained by Joseph Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle’s model for Sherlock Holmes (and touchy about people bringing it up), Professor Merchiston is a brilliant, complex man, a doctor from humbler origins than most of his colleagues, who has been impressed by Sarah’s surgical skills and deductive reasoning (yes, he’s fallen in love with her too), and bends the rules so she can assist in post-mortems of murder victims and get into dangerous scrapes.

As The Unquiet Heart opens, the dust has barely settled on Sarah’s first brush with murder, but there has been one significant development. Her family has found a man prepared to marry her, despite her tattered reputation and headstrong attitude. Miles Greene is the younger son of a well-off New Town family, but he’s no prize catch, lacking much in the way of physique, presence and confidence. The conflicted Sarah is loath to give up medicine for marriage, but can’t see an easy way out of the situation. Then, at their engagement party, the discovery of a maid in the bushes with her skull caved in and arsenic under her fingernails suggests that the family Sarah is engaged to marry into might not be as scandal-free as people thought.

There’s considerable enjoyment to be found in this novel, which charms and intrigues in equal measures, even if the sense of misogynistic oppression can become almost overwhelming. On the plus side, Sarah’s courage and resolve in the face of such adversity makes her one of the most sympathetic and relatable heroines to come along in a long while. The Sarah Gilchrist novels have been enthralling so far, and, with the completion of her studies still years away, the prospect of many more adventures to come is a welcome one indeed.