Thursday, March 1, 2012
Review: ANATOMY OF MURDER by Imogen Robertson
This is the second book in a new historical series (new to me, anyway) which I began reading just near the end of last year. The first book, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS is an extraordinary achievement considering, especially, that it was the author's debut book. But besides that, it is as if I've witnessed the tossing of the mantle from the late (and very much lamented) Ariana Franklin to Imogen Robertson.
Though Franklin was writing of a much different age - her books were set in medieval England - the depth and breadth of careful research combined with genuine writing talent and vivid imagination is alive and well in Roberson's tales set in the late 1700's. You will find yourself easily cast back into this time and place without hardly a stir. These are the sorts of books for which an actual time travel machine would be redundant.
18th century England is at war with America and France and things are humming in London. Spies are everywhere. Skullduggery lurks in the shadows. It is 1781 and ANATOMY OF MURDER begins with a few scenes aboard Harriet Westerman's husband's ship - he is captain of a naval vessel engaged in wartime activities on the high seas. He was not a character in the first book at all, so it's interesting to meet up with him and get an idea of the sort of man Harriet is devoted to.
Harriet, you might remember, is the heroine of the first book - a woman out of her own time, a woman not averse to taking risks if the scientific or moral truth requires it. She has an intelligent, inquisitive mind which, given the age she lives in, is a burden for a woman of her class and station in life. What's even worse, she has a scientific bent.
Harriet and her friend (or maybe cohort is a better word), Gabriel Crowther, an enigmatic and very reclusive anatomist, He is a man (with a scandal plagued past - his brother murdered their father) who specializes in the new science of post mortem investigation. It isn't too out of the way to say that Crowther prefers the dead to the living.
But engaging with Mrs. Westerman in their first and now their second murder investigation is slowly changing the way Crowther views things. He really is a dried up old stick, but interacting with Harriet and her family and his new found fame as a 'detective' is thawing him out. Not that he welcomes fame at all. And of course, the word 'detective' hadn't been coined yet.
A few months after the prologue in which Captain Westerman engages in a sea battle and comes out the richer for it, we are set right in the middle of London where a dead body has been fished from the Thames. Not an extraordinary occurrence, except this one does turn out to be an interesting body. For it belongs to a certain Fitzraven, an obsequious member of the staff of an opera company, assistant to Harwood the manager.
The company is now featuring the world renowned castrato Manzerotti as well as the renowned soprano, Isabella Marin, both having been lured from France to liven up the London opera season. The opera is having its greatest triumph, so a murder investigation at the height of the season cannot be good for business. Neither can the murder of the soprano.
When it turns out that not only was the dead Fitzraven an unlikeable busybody and blackmailer, but also an occasional spy for the Brits who may or may not have worked for the French, the plot, necessarily. thickens. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther are in the middle (or maybe 'muddle')of things as Crowther has been asked to do the post mortem, almost in situ. He will not work without Harriet at his side.
At the same time the investigation is on-going, Harriet is burdened with the gravest of personal circumstances- the deteriorating condition of her beloved husband. The captain has been placed in an asylum - for his safety and the safety of his wife and small children. Westerman has come home from the sea with a debilitating head injury - an accident on board ship. He many never recover his wits and Harriet and the family must reconcile themselves to the fact that he will never again be the man he once was.
In a way, Harriet welcomes the investigation which keeps her mind busy at this terrible time. My only quibble with this plot twist is that we're not made aware of how the accident occurred until the very last pages of the book. I suppose it's meant as a red herring of sorts, but surely Captain Westerman deserves more than to be a red herring.
Several characters from the first novel are present and accounted for in this second book, but it's not rocket science if you don't read either book in order. I would, though, to get the full flavor of just how Harriet and Crowther came to be working together.
While all this is going on, there is also a secondary plot line involving a certain Mrs. Jocasta Bligh, a London back alley reader of Tarot cards who, with her small terrier and the aid of a ten year old street urchin named Sam, are looking into the murder of a local woman whom the law assumes, was killed in an accidental fall. Both Jocasta and Sam unknowingly becoming involved in the larger investigation, coming at it from another angle.
Fresh murders will sprout along the way, as it is obvious a fiendish killer is on the loose at the opera house and elsewhere.
How these two plots dove-tail together near the end, will keep you reading until the very last word.
There is also a side sort of track: Jocasta might know something revealing about Gabriel Crowther's unhappy childhood. They both hail from the same part of the country.
But we'll have to wait until the third, ISLAND OF BONES, due out soon. April 14th is the publishing date in this country.