Theft of Life

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.

Previous novels in the series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones
Circle of Shadows

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.


Circle of Shadows

In Circle of Shadows, Harriet Westerman, wife and mother, and Gabriel Crowther, reclusive anatomist, take their sleuthing skills for their first adventure abroad in the fourth volume of Imogen Robertson’s engaging historical crime series.

A year after the events of Island of Bones, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther have resumed their lives and returned to their respective domestic arrangements; Harriet looking after her children and Crowther immersing himself in his scientific research. Harriet’s sister Rachel has married dashing lawyer and family friend Daniel Clode and is on her honeymoon to the Mittel European Duchy of Maulberg when tragedy strikes. At their annual Carnival, Clode is found half-raving mad with his wrists cut. But worse, in the same locked room is the body of a highly influential court lady and former lover of the Duke, murdered and yet spotless.

When news reaches Harriet, together with Crowther and their friend Owen Graves, she rushes to help the Clodes and get to the bottom of the mystery. Because Harriet is convinced Clode is incapable of murder which means he has been framed. As more suspicious deaths resembling ritualistic models of the occult pile up at court, Harriet must seek the aid of her sworn nemesis, the famous and beautiful castrato Manzerotti who happens to be visiting Maulberg at the invitation of the Duke. What is Manzerotti up to and can Harriet really trust him? And can both Crowther and Graves help her find the killer?

In such a tightly controlled and strictly hierarchical society such as Maulberg, also a university town bubbling with secret societies, crazy alchemists and spies, Harriet and Crowther must use their wits to outmanoeuvre a truly diabolical mind.

As per her other novels in the series, Robertson has once again created an interesting mystery this time focusing on the mechanics of a small, Mittel European principality with its petty but iron clad rules and discipline. It is dark yet unsentimental which is a big part of what I like about Robertson’s mysteries and especially refreshing is Harriet and Crowther’s relationship which has grown deeper and yet doesn’t yield to the usual romantic conclusion one normally expects. Also interesting is how Harriet’s relationship with Rachel evolves as previously she was so disapproving of Harriet’s involvement in solving crimes and its affect on her children’s prospects. And as usual, there is the diabolically fascinating Manzerotti who I can’t help but love; so clever, so beautiful and so naughty.

Although the central mystery itself didn’t quite live up to the lofty heights it hinted at in the beginning of the novel, Circle of Shadows is nonetheless a fast-paced and enjoyable read and I can’t wait for the next installment.

Although this is a personal preference, I do recommend you read the books in order just to get a better feel of the developing friendships of the central characters and the loose passage of time. The mysteries themselves are, however, self-contained.

I would like to thank Viking for kindly sending me a copy of Circle of Shadows to review.

Other volumes in the Westerman/Crowther series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones

Island of Bones

So it looks like I’m going through a Harriet & Crowther fest. But you know, I’d forgotten how utterly absorbing it is to read a series one book after the other without distraction. And so onto the third book of Imogen Robertson’s historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther, Island of Bones. Like with any series, I prefer reading the books in order and do feel that you gain a better insight into the characters as their relationships mature through the series. And it bugs me if I don’t know everything about their past. But each to their own.

Slowly recovering from the events of two years ago in Anatomy of Murder, Harriet is chafing at the bit, stuck at home, trying to be a good mother and sister. When her reclusive neighbour and friend, Gabriel Crowther receives a letter from his estranged sister who is a guest at what used to be their family home in Cumbria, she jumps at the chance to solve the mystery of a long-buried body found on what the locals call the Island of Bones and to try and support Crowther as he finally stops running and faces his past. For Crowther is Baron Keswick, son to a murdered father and brother to a convicted murderer. But there is something not quite right and Jocasta Bligh, who had helped them in Anatomy of Murder, had witnessed a strange man in green near the dead Baron’s body before she was branded a liar and left her, and Crowther’s, home town so long ago.

Returning after almost 30 years, Crowther soon realises that a tragic error may have been made and in trying to discover the secrets behind the mysterious body, he uncovers his family’s history bloodliy intertwined with those of the Earls of Greta, defeated and exiled as supporters of the Jacobite rebellion and from whom Crowther’s father had bought his lands.

We finally get to uncover Crowther’s tragic past and although this doesn’t reveal that much more of Crowther’s character, it introduces us to a bit of Jacobite history together with some interesting family dynamics and financial arrangements of the gentry. And with it is embedded the local superstitions and the deep ties that bind the local people with their lord and their land.

I enjoyed reading this book even more than the previous two and learnt a little of Jacobite history of which I was ignorant. Robertson is once again on the ball with mixing history and mystery. She doesn’t shy away from introducing unpleasant characters, this time in the guise of Crowther’s sister whose traumatic past has left deep marks on her character even though she has made an advantageous marriage and lives a life of luxury. Crowther too sheds a skin as he faces his past head on and Harriet slowly regains herself as she takes a break from her duties at home.

Next up is Circle of Shadows.

Anatomy of Murder

Following on from their adventure in Instruments of Darkness, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther once again find themselves embroiled in intrigue and murder in the sequel, Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson.

With London fawning over the imminent performance at His Majesty’s Opera House by the mesmerising French soprano Isabella Marin and the exquisite Italian castrato Manzerotti as the backdrop, both Harriet and the reclusive Crowther tread the path between privilege and the darkness that underpins their city. For a French spy is on the loose and they are given the task of saving their country and the men who fight so bravely for her. And amongst them is Harriet’s husband James, a highly decorated naval captain who has sustained a grave head injury throwing their marriage into jeopardy.

As Crowther tries to draw Harriet out of her domestic darkness with the lure of mystery and puzzle-solving, they must hunt down a ruthless killer who has killed a man working for His Majesty’s Opera House but with ties that go deep into the heart of government. And as the bodies mount up, it is only with the help of Jocasta Bligh, a reader of cards and someone who has always kept her own counsel, that Harriet and Crowther can finally tie the threads that will bind their killer and spy before tragedy strikes closer to home.

In the follow-up to her first novel, Robertson hasn’t just provided another mystery for both Harriet and Crowther to unravel. She has opened up the world of musical London in the form of the musical sensation of the period, the strange and captivating allure of the castrati. As in Instruments of Darkness, music plays an important role in her new novel but she has twinned the thrill and fast pace of espionage during a period when Britain and France are waging battles on the seas. Not only does Harriet have to deal with matters of state defense, but she has to cope with a sick husband who has changed considerably from the man she married and who cannot remember their life together.

One of the things I admire about Robertson’s books is the character of Harriet. She is strong and eccentric but also a wife and mother. And she has this wonderful friendship with the reclusive Crowther who can only be described as her soul-mate albeit a platonic one. Robertson has managed to flesh out a character who is complex and earthy, infusing her with all the paradoxes of a real, emotional woman without making her sentimental. Although I very much like Crowther, he with the painful past and dry intellect, it is Harriet who is the more complex of the two. I like the idea that she isn’t a woman that one can box into a category. Within her own society she is labelled as troublesome and eccentric, and although she cannot help getting involved, she also struggles with the consequences it may have on her family resulting in a loving yet quarrelsome relationship with her younger, more socially conscious sister Rachel. And yet she can’t stop.

The friendship between Harriet and Crowther is one based on mutual respect and understanding and, more importantly, acceptance of their difficult characters. Their growing confidence in each other as the series progresses is subtly done. As in the previous novel, the plot is fast paced and multi-faceted making Anatomy of Murder an absorbing read. I can’t wait to read the next in the series, Island of Bones, where we finally delve into Crowther’s painful past.

Instruments of Darkness

The first in a series of historical mysteries by Imogen Robertson, Instruments of Darkness is set in 1780 with the action split between London and the Sussex countryside.

When Harriet Westerman stumbles upon a dead man during one of her morning walks, she turns to the reclusive newcomer Gabriel Crowther for help knowing he was a science man. Crowther, although displeased at having to interact with his neighbours at first, soon realises that Harriet is no ordinary matriarch but one with a fine, inquiring mind who soon disarms his lonely existence and offers him a fragile, yet equal, friendship. Together they set out to find out who murdered this man and why he was carrying a valuable ring belonging to nearby Thornleigh Hall, the seat of the Earl of Essex? Was the murdered man the missing heir? And what exactly is going on in Thornleigh Hall where the Earl lies bedridden, his second son is drinking his life away while his beautiful, common step-mother looks on? And who exactly is the sinister retainer who virtually runs the estate? As Harriet and Crowther dig deeper, they discover dark secrets stretching back years that no one is willing to discuss which have contributed to the degeneration of a once great family.

Instruments of Darkness has a dark mystery at its core which ranges from the deceptively simple Sussex countryside to London, seething with political and religious agitators, and to revolution in the New World. This is tempered with the unorthodox partnership between a reclusive intellectual with a hidden past and a wife and mother who feels caged in her big, country house. Harriet is an interesting character. Happily married with two small children, nevertheless she is bored and chafing at the bit at having to stay at home while her husband is away sailing the seas. Once she used to sail with her husband, doing things that most ladies weren’t supposed to, but she’s had to settle down to look after her family including her younger sister Rachel. I liked the way in which Robertson doesn’t glamorise Harriet’s situation. She’s practical, intellectual and loves her husband and in Crowther, she has found a friend who accepts that she is more than just a wife and mother and who treats her as an equal mind. This doesn’t mean that she can do whatever she wants; she is still constrained by the social rules of her day which can threaten to ruin her if she steps out of line.

I enjoyed this atmospheric mystery and don’t mind getting to know more of Harriet and Crowther. Especially Crowther. What is it about reclusive intellectuals with a tragic past that is so enticing on paper?