First, Do No Harm
by Kurt Avard
First, Do No Harm is set in 17th Century Vienna. The City and its inhabitants are rooted in old superstitions, bigotries and a sense of moral decay prevails. Dietrich, a physician and nobleman by birth, lives a simplistic life as a night watchman in order that he may protect, learn from and heal Vienna’s populace. However, Dietrich’s routine existence is questioned and tested to the very limits when an unknown disease begins to ravage the City and a group of sinister ‘Plague Doctors’ arrive claiming knowledge of a cure.
In one of the earlier chapters, there is a phrase; ‘darkly beautiful’. This perfectly describes this novel. From the Gothic, atmospheric beginning to the violent, emotional end, the writing is wonderfully nuanced, building layers of intrigue and permeating the narrative with a creeping, foreboding air. Mr Avard’s writing has a slightly archaic turn of phrase which excellently complements the story.
Dietrich is a good, solid main character and I enjoyed that all the supporting characters had flaws and hints of skeletons in the closet. For a large part of the novel, you are really not too sure what or who the enemy might be. I thought it was a good tactic to introduce new characters even quite late in the book (Elenore, for example). It moved the narrative on in unexpected ways and maintained reader interest.
The most interesting character arc is Belial. The direction he takes could have backfired but it worked. Mr Avard really excels in his writing with him and also in the relationship between Belial and Dietrich. There are some incredibly thought-provoking and profound exchanges between them. The other character that is central to the book is the City itself, Vienna. It looms large over the narrative like a living, breathing organism and its history referenced which I found very interesting. The passages describing the horrors that the plague visits on the unfortunate and the work of the ominous Plague Doctors are viscerally and horribly realised. The subject matter contains parallels of our life in 2020 living with Covid-19 and that relevance across the centuries also gave the plot a fresh, applicable aspect.
It could be levelled that the book is a little dense in parts and the ending a bit abrupt. It worked for me but, at the same time, I could have read more. It did make me wonder if Dietrich, Belial et al, could continue in another story. I think it’s certainly a possibility given both the title and the quality of this book. I found First, Do No Harm, very reminiscent of the Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom despite the latter being set in Tudor London.
A beautifully constructed, intelligently written, dark and atmospheric historical thriller. I do hope this novel achieves the recognition it deserves. Highly recommended.