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Monday, October 17, 2011

Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson



Back of the Book Blurb: 
An intricate historical page-turner about a forbidding country estate and the unlikely forensic duo who set out to uncover its deadly secrets.
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.
Instruments of Darkness combines the brooding atmosphere of Anne Perry with the complex, compelling detail of Tess Gerritsen, moving from drawing room to dissecting room, from coffee house to country inn. Mrs. Westerman and Mr. Crowther are both razor-sharp minds and their personalities breathe spirit into this gripping historical mystery.

Review:   This is a beautifully written and elegantly structured novel, unfolding in three storylines.  Two take place in the novel's present day,  one following the lives of Alexander Adams (the missing heir of Thornleigh) and his children, and the other the activites of Mrs. Westerman and Mr. Crowther as they struggle to solve a rash of seemingly connected murders. The third storyline unfolds in flashbacks, as it takes place years before in Massachusetts and follows Hugh Thornfield, a Captain in the British Army during the early days of the American Revolution.

The structure of the novel is quite elegant, for as Mrs. Westerman and Mr. Crowther make slow progress in unraveling the murder mystery, we are alternately presented with the daily happenings in the London lives of Alexander Adams, his children and friends.  As the connections between the murders, Thornleigh Hall and  Alexander become more apparent, the rapid shift of perspective speeds up as well, heightening the tension and turning this from a really good book into a page-turner.  The sparser flashbacks to Hugh Thornleigh's experiences in America during the Revolutionary War lend insight into his character and present day relationships.

The novel is also chock-full of fascinating chunks of history.  The lives of the people in London are in additional danger from the rioting and attacks going on as anti-Catholic sentiment reaches its violent boiling point.  Mr. Crowther's profession as an anatomist is really interesting as well, because it is only in recent years that the general population considers anatomists men of science rather than ghoulish creatures.  There are many intriguing details about Crowther's specimens, how they are preserved, the process of dissection, and the early building blocks of forensic science.  Harriet Westerman is a delight as the mystery-solving amateur sleuth.  She spent the early years of her marriage on a ship with her husband, and still yearns for the freeedom and adventure of life at sea.  She is rather bored with her life in the country, managing her husband's estate, and minding her manners, much like a bird in a gilded cage.  She is practical, intelligent, brave and flawed - I loved her.
Throughout the novel the ever-present weight of class consciousness is pressing down on every action, every conversation, from the blatant rejection of the class system in the American flashbacks, to the London riots and the daily activities of every character in the book.  It was fascinating to watch how Harriet Westerman and Crowther navigated the dangerous seas of country and class politics and expectations, while attempting to solve a murder.

Absolutely beautifully written.  I'm off to the library tomorrow to find the next in this series!

For more information visit the author's website at http://www.imogenrobertson.com/ or her blog at http://imogenrobertson.wordpress.com/.