Tuesday 13 October 2015

Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson

Instruments of Darkness is the first novel in the Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crowther mystery series and is set in the hot Sussex summer of 1780. The story really pulls you in because it introduces its sleuths in such an interesting way.
    Crowther makes the villagers nervous with his nocturnal habits and interest in anatomy, a pursuit that has led to a reputation for body snatching, which he may have had a hand in in the past. He is unhappy to be woken from his sleep by the well-to-do resident of Caveley Park and as a rule doesn't allow visitors. But the note she has slipped the maid is compelling: 'I have found a body on my land. His throat has been cut.' How can he resist?
    So begins a thrilling historical mystery at the core of which are some dark secrets at Thornleigh Hall, the seat of the Earl of Sussex. The current earl is bedridden and unable to speak following a stroke. He has a reputation as a cruel master who has recently married a dancer, flouting the laws of polite society. There is a cloud over his past, in particular regarding the death of a young girl, while his first wife also died in suspicious circumstances.
    The heir to the earldom, Alexander Thornleigh has abandoned his family, marrying for love and hasn't been heard of in ten years; his younger brother, Hugh, battle scarred from the American War of Independence, is quietly drinking himself to an early grave. After examining the body, a man in his thirties, Harriet sends for Hugh, fearing the victim may be his long lost brother.
    Two clues are found on the body - a ring bearing the Thornleigh crest and a scrap of paper torn from the man's fist. Hugh is not a pleasant man and is prickly with Harriet. A year or so before he'd been a welcome guest at Caveley Park, and there had been hopes for a match with Harriet's younger sister, Rachel. But something has changed Hugh, and Harriet fears a kind of evil lurking at the hall. If she is right, Rachel has had a lucky escape.
    The storyline cuts to London and the music shop of one Alexander Adams. He's a widower with two young children and for some reason he cannot find the old ring he has sometimes allowed little Jonathan to play with. In the background London is besieged by anti-Catholic riots, a situation which creates a memorable chase scene towards the end of the book.
    Robertson has started her series off with an excellent debut novel, full of intrigue, family secrets, evil malefactors and a growing body count. There's also budding romance among the minor characters and an interesting historical context. Best of all are the two main characters: the determined, outspoken Harriet, the doggedly anti-social and clever Crowther who has his own shadowy past. Together they make an entertaining sleuthing couple.
    If I have a problem with the book, it is that the copy-editing lets it down at times, though I noticed fewer gaffs as the story progressed, probably because I was so swept along by the plot. I shall certainly be happy to return to more Westerman and Crowther mysteries, for this is a classic ripping yarn.

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