Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday Review: INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS by Imogen Robertson

The first FABULOUS book of my reading year is here: INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS (2009) the debut novel of British writer, Imogen Robertson.

I've read two amazingly good books so far this year (both happen to be historical mysteries) and I'll be talking about the second in a few days, but today belongs to this incredible novel which had me enthralled almost from the very first page.

I couldn't believe, as I was reading,  that this was a debut. The writing is so self-assured, vivid, historically true (at least to my modern day eyes and ears), and in sections quite lyrically beautiful. The author's sense of scene - 18th century Sussex and London - is superb.

But there are dreadful crimes committed here and Robertson doesn't flinch when the need arises to describe the foul work.  Under the spell of Robertson's writing, I was caught up in the 18th century world of Harriet Westerman, a married gentle-woman left at home in charge of children and Sussex country manor while her husband is off at sea for months at a time.

Harriet is strong, disciplined, intelligent and living within the strictures of an age which wasn't very kind to women.  She is, unfortunately, burdened with a fine mind and the need to use that mind other than on household pursuits and gossip.

When a man is found dead on her husband's land - his throat slashed - Harriet decides to find out the who and the what of it. Especially when a gold ring bearing the crest of the local earl's estate, Thornleigh Hall, is found on the body.

Harriet engages the help of a neighbor, the reclusive and often sullen Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist whom the local townsfolk look upon with unease.

What great pair these two make. There is no romantic entanglement, just a friendship that develops as the first horrible crime leads to a second and Harriet and Gabriel must work together to resolve a deadly series of events.

Harriet has felt the evil emanating from Thornleigh Hall, the country home of a once great but now perishing family headed by a dissipated earl whose beautiful low-life wife and tormented second son - a veteran of the American war for independence - wait for his imminent death.

It is an inescapable truth that the this family's vile secrets are at the heart of the mystery. Author Robertson makes no secret of this. Since the story is really not a 'whodunit' but a 'how and why-dunit', the reader pretty much knows who the villains are about half way through the book. Though there still manages to be a surprise or two in the final denouement.

But knowing doesn't lessen the allure or the intrigue. Terrific writing will win the day every time.

The story switches  viewpoints as we move from the countryside of Sussex to the jam packed and tumultuous streets of London during the Gordon anti-Catholic riots. We learn about the earl's  first born son, his heir, a widower who was cut off from the family name and fortune when he chose to marry for love. What happens to him and his little family when evil from Thornleigh Hall reaches out as far as London, makes for a story which almost instantly captures the imagination.

There  is also a step back into history as we learn about the war time experience of the earl's second son and how this experience impacts the current murderous situation.

The three strands of the story are carefully and expertly woven together by the author until in the end they all come together at breakneck speed. I could not read the last few pages of this atmospheric thriller fast enough.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, I am NOT a fan of varying viewpoints, but when the writing is this good, the talent this great, I forgive all - author Robertson's gift for story-telling carries the day.

I can't wait to read the next two books in the series, THE ANATOMY OF MURDER and ISLAND OF BONES.

P.S. I wish Imogen Robertson had written DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY instead of P.D. James. I'm sure she could have made something intriguing and true out of it.


  1. It sounded a good read. You may also, like MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, Ariana Franklyn, a historical thriller.

  2. This sounds interesting. Might check this out - thanks

  3. I'm glad to hear about this book.

    I had not heard of Imogen Robertson at all until I started reading mystery fans' blogs, especially those written by readers living in England. Then I saw her included in lists of awards' nominees.

  4. I did read MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, Dave. It was a fabulous book. Read the rest of the series too.

    I think you'd like INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS. I just ordered the second book in the series. :)

    My library didn't have it.

  5. Lucy, all I can say is I loved it!

    If you're in a historical mystery frame of mind you won't go wrong with this book. :)

  6. Me too, Kathy. I picked up her name on one of the blogs and read a quick review of this book and decided to take a look.

    I'm SO glad I did.

  7. I have now struck out three times trying to get this book: library, Barnes & Noble, and Books A Million. Guess I'm going to have to order it, but I don't want to wait!

  8. Jenn, my library doesn't have ANY of her books. Don't know why. I had to order this one as well as the second book, THE ANATOMY OF A MURDER, which I did today.

    Far as I know she's got a fourth one coming out in June or July of this year and there's a third book which nobody seems to have. Go figure.

    But let me tell you, it is worth trying to find this. I LOVED IT!

    She has a great blog, too. I've linked to it from the post.

    I've got another book I'm going to be talking about later this week and I'm wondering if you've read it. I'll have to check your blog posts....My lips are sealed. :)

  9. Well, I actually just devoured a series by Elly Griffiths that is FANTASTIC. The newest will come out this spring, and I can't wait. Have you read her?

  10. No, I don't know her name at all. I'll definitely take a look.

  11. Oooooh, this sounds wonderful! I'm always on the hunt for a good historical mystery (a series is even better) so I'm going to give this one a go. Thanks for the spotlight on your great read!

  12. Oh Joanne, you're welcome! I think you will love this one!

    Be sure and let us know what you think once you get your hands on it.

  13. FYI: Amazon has this in hard back for $4 plus shipping for new from their booksellers, and even less for used books. And then have paperbacks new and used for less.

    Sounds like a good book. I'm not generally a fan of historical crime fiction, but Adelia Aguilar opened up my eyes.

    So if I see this, I'll give it a chance.

  14. Want to add that Ruth Galloway, the protagonist of Elly Griffiths' books is a woman of a certain age, a professor and she lives on the East Coast of England.

    She is not glamorous, nor does she know karate or several languages. She is a real person.

    The first three books are Crossing Places, The Janus Stone and House at Sea's End. I've read the first two and am awaiting the library copy of the third.

  15. Sounds like something I would really enjoy reading. I know I can always count on you :-)

  16. Roberton's fourth book will not be published until April of this year. It's available for pre-order at (the British site).

    Thornleigh Hall? Shades of Jane Eyre in the name of that house.

  17. Kathy: I've already reserved my copy of the first Elly Griffiths book at the library.

    I ordered THE ANATOMY OF MURDER yesterday since my library doesn't have any Imogen Robertson books. I think you'd like this series.

  18. Yes you can, Ryan.:)

    This is a definite keeper. I'm happy enough to own the first which I found used and a bargain.

    I love a book that draws me in and doesn't want to let me go.

  19. But it's a different century, John. Don't be picky. It's a wonderful book. You know I don't rave unless something is totally worth raving about.


  20. Oh, this one sounds extremely tempting. It is so important to get the voice right in historical fiction.
    And I know you wouldn´t rave unless it was worth raving about ;)

  21. I was so excited as I began reading this, Dorte, when I realized she was getting it right.

    This is terrific writing. Historical mystery at its best.
    All I can say is: I loved it!

    Take a look. See what you think.

  22. My public library has one copy that isn't checked out. I'm going to head over to the downtown branch as soon as Paul gets home with the car! Fingers crossed no one gets to it before I do!

  23. Lucky you, Lauren, my library had none.

    Rush right over. :)

    Let us know what you think.

    I'm hoping the book lives up to my hype. :)


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