Instruments of Darkness, by Imogen Robertson

>> Saturday, November 17, 2012

TITLE: Instruments of Darkness
AUTHOR: Imogen Robertson

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 1780 England
TYPE: Historical mystery
SERIES: Starts a series following Harriet and Crowther.

In the year 1780, Harriet Westerman, the willful mistress of a country manor in Sussex, finds a dead man on her grounds with a ring bearing the crest of Thornleigh Hall in his pocket. Not one to be bound by convention or to shy away from adventure, she recruits a reclusive local anatomist named Gabriel Crowther to help her find the murderer, and historical suspense's newest investigative duo is born.

For years, Mrs. Westerman has sensed the menace of neighboring Thornleigh Hall, seat of the Earl of Sussex. It is the home of a once- great family that has been reduced to an ailing invalid, his whorish wife, and his alcoholic second son, a man haunted by his years spent as a redcoat in the Revolutionary War. The same day, Alexander Adams is slain by an unknown killer in his London music shop, leaving his children orphaned. His death will lead back to Sussex, and to an explosive secret that has already destroyed one family and threatens many others.
Mrs. Harriet Westerman has spent most of her adult life travelling the world with her naval commander husband, giving her experiences most other women in late 18th century England can't even imagine. Family circumstances and obligations, however, have meant that for the past couple of years she's stayed behind running her husband's country estate. One morning, while on a walk, she finds a dead body, a man whose throat has been slit. Being a sensible and non-squeamish woman, she takes matters into her own hands.

A reclusive, mysterious gentleman has recently moved to the village. His name is Gabriel Crowther, and gossip has it that he has the most disgusting preserved specimens of bodies in his study. Harriet has read one of his articles in a medical journal, and knows he's an anatomist, and one with a special interest in what can be deduced from dead bodies about the manner of their deaths. The perfect person to have a look at the body she's found, clearly.

Crowther is not happy to have his self-imposed solitude disturbed, but he agrees to go have a look. Their examination shows that the man is carrying a ring with the crest of the neighbouring Thornleigh Hall, home to the Earls of Sussex. This makes them fear he might have been the heir, Alexander, who abandoned the family decades earlier and hasn't been seen since.

And then it turns out that this death is only the first, and with the magistrate not particularly interested in finding the truth, it falls on Mrs. Westerman and Crowther to do so. And at the same time as this is going on, we follow events in London, where a man called Alexander Adams is murdered, and his children are under threat.

This was a solid historical mystery, with an interesting case and engaging characters I'd love to see more of.

On the "mystery" part of the "historical mystery" tag, I was mostly satisfied. The mystery itself is not bad at all. Even though we've got three threads from three different places and two different time-frames (Crowther and Harriet and the events in London, as mentioned, but also some sections set 5 years earlier, during the Revolutionary War in America, where the other son of Thornleigh Hall served), it's pretty straightforward, and not hard to guess the solution. I still enjoyed it.

I liked that Harriet and Crowther's investigation proceeds in a logical way. I never felt like shaking them for not doing the obvious, which is more than I can say about other mysteries, and their involvement in the investigation felt natural and understandable. I especially liked the application of very early forensics. Crowther doesn't have many tools at his disposal, but it's more of an attitude thing, the willigness to actually look at the body and attempt to base conclusions on the evidence on what can be discerned from it. That feels, from other characters' reactions, like a quite revolutionary attitude!

On the "historical" bit of the tag, that was actually really good as well. Harriet feels like quite the modern woman, and doesn't seem to have any constraints on what she can do, but that's explained by her past experiences. We don't get to find out much about her husband, but I can only assume he's the open-minded sort. All the other characters, though, feel more of the time. I have no idea how accurate it all is, but I can say that Robertson succeeded in creating a sense of place, a sense that this is a different world, and to give us quite a bit of colour.

One of the elements I enjoyed the most was Crowther and Harriet's developing relationship. This isn't a romance (at least not here, and I didn't really perceive any sort of sexual chemistry between these two, so I wouldn't expect the series to turn into one). They do become good friends, though, and it's a true meeting of minds. I got the feeling that there is a lot more to discover about these two. Crowther clearly has secrets in his past, and I suspect we haven't found out about all of them. Harriet remains even more of a cypher, especially since we see a lot less of her point of view than of Crowther's. We know she feels a bit constrained by being stuck in one place, compared to her previous life, and that she's intelligent and brave, if sometimes a bit foolhardy, but not much more. They're both interesting people, and I want to find out more about them.

The tone of the story is dark, and some really bad things happen (both to people and to animals -I suggest that if you've got an issue with animal experimentation, you skip this). It's not a grisly book, though, and I liked that quite a few of the secondary characters were really decent people. Even some of the bad ones were drawn with some subtlety. Well, a couple of people were irredeemably bad, but there was one particular person who I couldn't help but feel pity for, in spite of their actions. Anyway, the existence of several decent characters made the feel of the book a bit more hopeful and easier to read.

Before I conclude, I should mention this was an audiobook, and the narrator, Joanna Mackie was good. It looks, however, like the version in audible is narrated by someone else. The one my library has is this one, published by Oakhill.

MY GRADE: A strong B


Mean Fat Old Bat 19 November 2012 at 00:38  

Oh, this looked like a good read and exactly what I've been looking for. Right up to your mention of animal abuse. Thank you so much for including that in your review.

I know, it doesn't make much sense for me to read without a single qualm about a man with his throat slit and then gag over animal abuse, but there it is. Sounds otherwise like an interesting read and a change of pace.

Rosario 19 November 2012 at 06:23  

It might not make sense in abstract, but I definitely felt it too. There are very good people killed in this book, and I did feel a sense of grief about them, but it was the scene with the dog that had me tearing up.

By the way, I wouldn't call it animal abuse, but an animal definitely suffers, although for good reason. Would you like a spoiler, to know whether it's something you'd be able to handle?

Mean Fat Old Bat 20 November 2012 at 02:50  

No, I'll just let it go, I think, especially since Mt. TBR is now in the hundreds and my bar for animal suffering is set very low. Reading about a dog being kicked, for example, can give me nightmares.

But thank you for the offer. I'll give it a miss at least for now while I'm not in a good place emotionally.

Rosario 22 November 2012 at 07:10  

Fair enough, probably best not to read this one, then!

Susan/DC,  24 November 2012 at 08:40  

I love this series. Harriet is definitely more liberated than most women of her era, but she's had to raise her children (as well as her younger sister) and manage an estate while her husband is away at sea, so I think she would be used to more independence. I like that Robertson shows that Harriet is aware of the fact that she is not conventional and conformable and that she chafes when others try to fit her into the common mold. She does try, however, when she feels it will harm those around her if she goes too far.

Rosario 25 November 2012 at 15:36  

Susan/DC: That last point I think is key if you want to write an unconventional character in a historical. As long as you show that the character is aware that he/she is different from the norm, and there are consequences for not conforming, I will probably buy anything! Robertson does that very well.

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