Author: Robin Blake
Title: A Dark Anatomy
Hardback: 304 pages
Publication Date: 04/03/2011
1740s Lancashire. Dolores Brockletower, the wife of the local squire, has been found brutally murdered in the local woods, her throat viciously cut from ear-to-ear. But, due to the fact that she was foreign and dark-skinned [she was the daughter of a West-Indian plantation owner], there is little sympathy from the locals. In fact, due to her ‘otherness, the common consent amongst the native populace – who are all inveterate gossipers – is that it was the work of the devil and that Dolores had brought it upon herself. Robin Blake brilliantly brings to life the deep-rooted suspicion and superstition of Georgian Britain.
So when the corpse mysteriously disappears from the locked Ice-house where it had been placed for preservation, the locals are convinced that it is a sign that Dolores was in league with Satan. But Titus Cragg – the lawyer and coroner tasked with looking into the murder – is certain that the murderer was a person of flesh and blood …
Cragg is an elegant and urbane character – but still with a steely determination about himself – who really engages the reader through his first-person narrative. Indeed, more than once in the novel there was a suggestion that Cragg was directly speaking and recounting the course of events to the reader. And, whilst Cragg is unquestionably the focus of the novel, his ‘sidekick’ Dr Luke Fidelis proves to be a great foil and his medical knowledge is invaluable in the duo’s investigation.
However, despite their use of rudimentary forensic science and investigative techniques, I would hesitate to call this a procedural as there isn’t really much in the way of set-down procedure or rules for Cragg and Fidelis to carry out the investigation. CSI this certainly isn’t!
Actually, I was reminded of Tim Burton’s 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow [based on a Washington Irving short story published in 1820], where Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane uses unproven investigative techniques to try to solve a series of brutal slayings. Indeed, the cover of A Dark Anatomy, with its black background and image of a tree and its root-system, is incredibly similar to the tree where the headless horseman is buried in Burton’s film.
Dark and twisting [the novel, not the tree on the cover!], with a host of well-drawn characters, A Dark Anatomy is a really accomplished piece of historical crime fiction. I have to admit that it did take me a few pages to get used to the narratorial voice, the writing style and the period, but after that period of acclimatisation I found that I couldn’t put the book down and polished it off in a little over a day. Thankfully, this is the first in a proposed Fidelis and Cragg series, so my thirst for more bloody Georgian crime fiction will be sated soon!