Tessa Harris's The Anatomist’s Apprentice

If you are a fan of historical mysteries, you won’t want to miss Tessa Harris’s first Dr. Thomas Silkstone novel. Harris, who studied History at Oxford, is a journalist of 30 years and has worked as an editor of a variety of publications. Not surprisingly, she brings a sharp eye for telling detail – particularly historical detail – to the novel. In her acknowledgements, Harris tells the reader that The Anatomist’s Apprentice was inspired by a 1781 English murder trial. This trial was the first occasion when an expert witness – an anatomist – was called to testify.  

The Anatomist’s Apprentice opens in the year 1780. When Lady Lydia Farrell hears a scream, she finds her brother shaking violently from a deadly poison, one that eventually kills him. Suspecting her husband of murder, Lady Lydia travels from rural Oxfordshire to London in the hope of persuading the up-and-coming anatomist, Dr Silkstone, to perform an autopsy on her brother’s corpse. Dr Silkstone travels back to Broughton Hall with Lady Lydia and becomes enmeshed in scandal and danger. Surprising revelations will keep you on the edge of your seat. Even seasoned mystery writers will not guess the end of this novel.

Harris lures readers into this eighteenth-century world of ancestral manors, English aristocrats, dissecting tables, and scandalous social conditions. Rape, poison, treachery, gambling, murder, and betrayal lie beneath the surface of this polished society. As Hayman (2011) observes, “smart misdirection and time-period-appropriate medical details make for a promising start to a new series” (69).

In the prologue to her novel, Harris writes that this is a story of a man “whose name has been lost in the mists of history, but to whom modern crime fighting owes so much. Just over two hundred years ago anatomists were not afforded the luxury of cold storage to retard the purification process.” Like the best historical novelists, she makes readers feel what it was really like to live in this world.

Tessa Harris’s debut novel combines the old-world atmosphere of a Sherlock Holmes story (see my blog on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), the forensic intensity of a Patricia Cornell mystery (see my blog on Predator), and the meticulous historical research of an Ellis Peters’s novel (see my blog on Crocodile on the Sandbank). Once you read this captivating story, you will agree with the comment by New York Times’s reviewer, Marilyn Stasio: “We await — indeed, demand — the sequel.”

Harris, Tessa. The Anatomist’s Apprentice: A Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mystery. New York: Kensington Books, 2012.

Hayman, Stacey. “Harris, Tessa. The Anatomist’s Apprentice: A Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mystery.” Library Journal 136, no. 19 (2011): 69.