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Dickens would have felt right at home.

I confess, I did not love Instruments of Darkness, the first of the Imogen Robertson Georgian murdery mystery series. The writing was fine, but I couldn’t warm up to the characters.

But. Now I have read Anatomy of Murder, the second in the series, and I want to go back and reread the first one because obviously my literary tastebuds were malfuntioning for a while there.

It’s London, 1781. A body is discovered floating in the Thames, and spymaster Palmer suspects the dead man was carrying British secrets to the French. To discover what he was doing and who he was working with, Palmer enlists the aid of gentlewoman Harriet Westerman and reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther, who made themselves notorious the year before when they unraveled the case of the missing heir of Thornleigh Hall.

The setting is every bit as much the star of this show as the plot and the characters, as in

London rolled over in its bed and yawned at the approaching morning, then cursed it. In the churches, old men turned large keys in the doors and shoved them cautiously open, letting the darkness out before the first worshipers found their way in. Those who had got enough pennies together to drink the night before, flinched at the dawn and their empty pockets. In the better houses, young girls, their hands already worn red with work and cold water, cleaned the grates and set the fires, dreaming of the narrow beds they had just left. In the rookeries the day began with angry growls and hands grasping for what comfort they could find in the dark. Another day to live through.

Robertson has chosen to tell part of the story through the eyes of two characters who live near the bottom of society, and not since Dickens has poverty been rendered with more immediacy. I was hungry and cold a lot, and I kept wanting to put Sam in a bathtub and scrub him down.

Harriet’s husband has suffered a head injury at sea that has left him dangerous to those he loves. At present he is confined under a doctor’s care, so Harriet, with time on her hands and in spite of the disapproval of her family, accepts Palmer’s commission.

That was the last moment when it occurred to Harriet that she still had time to withdraw. She could picture the scene upstairs–Lady Susan entertaining the younger children with Rachel, and Mrs. Service at their side–and wondered to herself if she might join them, might be free and easy, and foul neither her mind nor her reputation with further association with violent death. Then she thought of her husband and felt, with a sensation like sand running through her hands, that her days of ease were perhaps in any case over. She might join the party upstairs, but at present she would only bring darkness with her…Let Palmer make use of her, then.

Crowther does, too, in spite of

When Crowther arrived to accompany Mrs. Westerman to their assignation with Mr. Palmer, he walked in on such a scene of domestic harmony and goodwill that he felt as if someone had doused him with a pail full with the milk of human kindness.

Crowther is a misanthrope of epic proportions, due to a past that reveals itself slowly over the course of the novel. The ensemble cast is equally good, from the determined Mr. Palmer, the deplorable Lord Carmichael and the suave Lord Sandwich, to the tarot-card reading witch Jocasta, the lost boy Sam, and the patriotic crook Malloy. There is opera, though Harriet and Crowther both be tone deaf to it, and a galloping ventre a terre denouement that will first thrill you and then break your heart.

I might pick a few nits over the too-neat tying up of several plots lines and the, no, that would give too much away so never mind. And never mind anyway. I really enjoyed this one.


Once again, Barbara Peters at the Poisoned Pen proved the indispensability of the indie bookstore by insisting I read these books. In her honor, the buy links are to the Poisoned Pen. Support your local bookstore!

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