David Hutchison is a Scottish writer and filmmaker who was the man responsible for our favourite horror comedy film of 2017 Baobhan Sith (White Fairy). So we were delighted when David asked us if we’d be interested in reviewing his latest project, the self illustrated historic crime mystery The Book of Skulls.
The Book of Skulls is David’s first book in a series called The Doctresses. Set in 1875 The Book of Skulls follows the adventures of the foundling mixed race Liz Moliette and her sidekick Amulya Patel as they enroll at the Edinburgh Medical School. As the the first female students at this prestigious institution (and indeed the first anywhere in the UK) they face an uphill struggle against the entrenched hostile attitudes of much of the teaching staff led by Professor Atticus. In need of funds Liz becomes the assistant to Dr. Florian Blyth, who aside from his duties at the medical school is also Edinburgh’s police surgeon. So when a series of gruesome murders take place each leaving behind a headless corpse Liz finds herself drawn into Inspector Macleod’s investigation.
When Blyth is seriously assaulted and put out of action Liz finds herself not only in the front line of the investigation as the body count ratchets up, but also in danger as she, Amuyla and their friends fellow student and photographer Campbell Preeble and Hector Findlay, a reporter on Edinburgh’s local paper The Reekie start to uncover a mystery that links Edinburgh’s Asylum for the Insane, the Burry Man Festival, a séance, an Egyptologist and the pseudoscience of phrenology while also uncovering the secrets of Liz’s own past.
Inspired by the real story of the Edinburgh Seven, the first female medical students to enroll at Edinburgh in 1869 (that also inspired TL Wiswell’s rather glorious gender inverted play Albertina West Reanimator at the London Horror Festival in 2019) and the curious case of Edinburgh graduate Dr. James Miranda Barry, the Army surgeon, who on his death in 1865 turned out to have been a woman all along, The Book of Skulls is an intriguing adventure mystery that incorporates elements of period horror, police procedural and romance, while also making serious points about gender and racial inequality, identity and LGBTQ sexuality. I think Liz and Amulya have lot of potential as a duo, one from a lowly background the other from a contrastingly privileged one, because neither is afraid to challenge what polite white society expects from them and It’s going to be really interesting to follow their journey as the series progresses. You really could not wish for a better location for creepy goings on than Victorian Edinburgh and Hutchison’s recreation of the city’s past is wonderfully evocative taking in locations including the port town of Leith, Edinburgh New Town, the seaside district of Portobello and the height of Calton Hill. You can almost taste the haar as it rolls in!
An intriguing gateway to a new mystery series we give The Book of Skulls a 666/666.