A large country estate; an ancient and powerful aristocratic family; a dangerous hidden secret; a mysterious anatomist; a feisty amateur female detective and the brutal murder of a stranger. Really, what more could you want from a novel?
Well, how about a link to the American revolutionary war and London in riotous meltdown?
It's all here in glorious abundance in this rich and lustrous historical crime novel, Instruments of Darkness, the debut work of the ludicrously talented Imogen Robertson which comes to paperback soon.
It is difficult to isolate a single factor that makes this book so successful, as there is so much here that is well done, but the thought that kept occurring to me as I read it was that at heart this is a classical whodunnit superbly executed. Roberston presents her crime and then for three hundred pages she presents scenario after scenario that suggests this or that killer might be responsible, driven by this or that motive. The novel twists and turns, keeps the reader guessing and then peaks to its dramatic conclusion.
The terrific plot is underpinned by technicolour context - a historical backdrop in Massachusetts at the outset of a disastrous war as well as the anti-Catholic Gordon riots that rocked London in 1780 - as well as rounded, convincing characterization.
The novel opens with two murders. In rural Sussex an unknown man is killed on the Caveley estate of Commodore Westerman, currently serving with the Navy in the Caribbean. In London a respected musician is killed in front of his children by an unknown assailant in an apparently pre-meditated attack.
The former is at first attributed to a violent robbery, but the investigations of the insatiably curious Harriet Westerman, looking after her husband's affairs in his absence, and the mysterious anatomist Gabriel Crowther, who has taken lodgings nearby, quickly suggests the motive and murderer might be connected with the nearby Thornleigh Estate where the once powerful Earl Of Sussex has been all but destroyed by dementia. An apparent battle over his succession has developed with his glamourous second wife, a former dancer, and his alcoholic American War of Independence veteran son Hugh seemingly scheming to replace the estranged heir Alexander and control Thornleigh and its power.
Harriet is a thoroughly modern woman, happy to take on traditional behaviours and upset the carefully established apple cart of tradition and deference. Crowther is silent and intelligent, reluctant to engage but once involved cannot let go. The interaction between them is the soul of the book. It gives the narrative heart and humour.
This really is a tremendous murder mystery novel, a joy to read, beautifully written. There is more on the way soon from Roberston, a TV director whose literary career was launched by a Daily Telegraph competition. The next book cannot come soon enough.