Theft of Life by Imogen Robertson
14 October, 2014
Imogen Robertson’s fifth volume in her historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther is probably her darkest yet. Theft of Life begins with the transplanting of Harriet and her children to Berkeley Square where their friends, Owen Graves and his wards, the Earl of Sussex, Jonathan, his sister Susan and their half-brother Eustache, are currently residing due to the children’s education. Crowther is also in London to present his new work on anatomy and Harriet has followed him to avoid her sister’s attempts at finding a suitable second husband for her.
No sooner are they settled in when Harriet’s senior footman, William, is witness to a body found near St. Paul’s, tied, stretched out and wearing a metal mask only a former slave would recognise. Shaken, William is reluctant to admit to the authorities the identity of the dead man, a notorious slave owner from the West Indies. And so Harriet and Crowther are called to examine the corpse, identified by William as a Mr. Trimnell, and are drawn into the dark, violent world of slavery that has bolstered and financed British trade, especially that of sugar.
Stories of slavery run by the British are few and far between. We are more familiar with films and books built on testaments of American slaves and I admire Robertson for tackling such a difficult subject head on. She reserves no punches and does not wallow in sentimentality. It’s brutal, horrific and tragic and she has drawn on historical sources to craft a story that is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of respectability. Set before the abolition of slavery in Britain, Robertson uses the testaments and stories of the free slaves, who have managed to carve out an independent life in England but who still retain the fear and nightmares from their past, and those who endeavoured to help them.
As Crowther and Harriet begin their investigation into Trimnell’s death which at first points to a former slave intent on revenge, Eustache is caught stealing a book and is sent to work off his punishment at Hinckley’s Bookshop run by Francis Glass, a free black man. When Francis’ beloved, Eliza Smith, dies in a suspicious fire in her bookshop one night, he is convinced that there was foul play. He had seen a wound in her eye and her body was cold to the touch before he was dragged away by the local constable and the shop collapsed. The social world which the rich and powerful inhabit in London is a small one and those with connections to the slave trade will at one time or another all congregate at the Jamaica Coffee House. And soon the two disparate events collide as Crowther, Harriet and Francis Glass begin to realise that what they are up against is a group of powerful people who will do anything to keep the status quo and, more importantly, their past evils buried and forgotten.
In Theft of Life, Robertson has once again crafted a gripping historical thriller, dark, pacey and heartbreaking. One of the things I like about Crowther and Harriet’s partnership is that it is based on mutual understanding and respect which has, gradually over time, turned into a deep friendship. The lack of sentimentality and easy romance which can be prevalent in this genre, and one which I admit I sometimes hanker after, is refreshingly missing here. I cannot wait for the next one in the series.
I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.