Medieval murder

Lead review
Last Updated 16 June 2012, 19:22 IST

Revolving around the death of a squire’s wife in 18th century England, Robin Blake’s novel is a ‘proto-police procedural’ of sorts, set in a time when the formal police force was yet to be established, writes Sudarshan Purohit

A Dark Anatomy is the first of a planned series of murder mysteries set in 18th-century England. The book is a sort of ‘proto-police procedural’, in that it describes the typical course of a murder investigation in the era before the formal police force was set up in that country.

The plot revolves around the death of a squire’s wife, who is found, throat cut, in the woods. In this era, the town coroner is in charge, mainly to lead the legal processes of judgement on the death: assembling a jury, authorising a post mortem if needed. In Lancashire, where the crime has occurred, Titus Cragg is coroner, and he starts off on his duty. But Cragg’s duty is also to uncover the truth: so he begins investigating the crime site, and talking to the people associated with the victim.

This turns out to be not as straightforward as it looks. Since the lady was foreign by birth, and not much liked through the town, the common thought is that the devil himself took her soul, and that she brought it upon herself. The squire himself is not very popular either, and seems to have his own reasons to stall the investigation. As Cragg goes about assembling the jurors, he gets a rude shock: the body has disappeared from the ice house where it was stored.

Robin Blake lays out the core plot well, adding an unexpected twist three-quarters of the way through the book. The resolution is very closely tied to the era’s social structure and beliefs, and Blake must also be congratulated on weaving a mystery so well into the time and place it is set in.

Besides Cragg, the other major character is Luke Fidelis, a progressive young doctor who is Cragg’s closest friend, and who assists him with the investigation. In fact, the book is subtitled ‘A Cragg & Fidelis Mystery’. However this team-up is unwieldy and lop-sided.

The two protagonists are characterised as being near equals in intellect and they put in equal efforts into the investigation. However, the story is narrated by Cragg, and it is he who deduces the main mystery behind the crime. Fidelis plays more the role of the fact-finder.

Throughout the book we ‘hear’ Cragg as he forms and re-forms his theories, and there’s a small narrative sleight of hand required to prevent us from solving the mystery of the crime along with him. Compare this to the typical two-person team: Holmes/Watson, or Poirot/Hastings, where the narrator is the proxy for the reader and thus doesn’t understand clues until the other partner spells things out.

Having the protagonist himself narrate the story is more suited to the more action-oriented thrillers, like the Mike Hammer stories. In this case, it works, just about, since the investigation is more driven by events than by arm-chair logic.

If there’s a flaw with this book, it is in the editing. This is planned as the first in a series of mysteries; and the conventions of a murder mystery series are different from those of a stand-alone mystery story.

A stand-alone story can take its time about the background and lead gradually into the mystery. But a series is set in the same world through its various books, so it cannot rely on the description of the world to take it through a volume — the storyline itself must be the meat of the book, and the setting must be merely the background on which the plot plays out. As the volumes progress, the background is revealed bit by bit.

A Dark Anatomy, although it has an interesting plot, spends unnecessary pages on the social rituals and investigative procedures of the time: land allocations, belief in witchcraft, juries, and search warrants. A perfectly serviceable historical mystery could be carved out of about half the words in this one.

Robin Blake has written several books before this one, both fiction and non-fiction. He happens to be native to the Lancashire area where this book is set, which must have helped with the research.

The language of the book feels true to its time, with the descriptions and the speech patterns creating the right atmosphere. Cragg, the narrator, also has a personality of his own: rather pompous on the surface, but willing to admit himself wrong when needed, and keenly interested in the truth. Atypically, he has a history in the area: an old sweetheart, friends, enemies, and so on, which serve to flesh him out well.

Overall, the book is a fun, if slow, one-time read. It remains to be seen whether Blake can sustain the quality and suspense over succeeding volumes in the series.

(Published 16 June 2012, 12:09 IST)

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