Monday, October 1, 2012

Dark Anatomy—by Robin Blake ;Published by Panmacmilan ; Pages 372  ; Price Rs 350/-

                                                    Just as Sherlock Holmes made 221 b Baker StreetLondon known the world over, a certain townhouse in central Preston is making its mark on the literary map. “Cheapside ”, but it certainly rings bells for those who regularly walk the streets of Lancashire’s largest city. Robin Blake, a Preston-born author better known for his biographies of artists, has turned his hand to historical crime fiction and the first of a new series looks set to put both his talents and his old home town centre stage.

                                                       The case currently gripping Preston is the brutal murder of Dolores Brockletower in the grounds of Garlick Hall, a country mansion in the leafy suburb of Fulwood, and as policing barely exists, it’s up to the Coroner Titus Cragg to turn detective. What is unsettling for him  is that no-one at the big house seems to care that the young mistress, daughter of a wealthy West Indian sugar planter, has been found with her throat cut ‘from ear to ear’. Local gossip is awash with rumour and suspicion and there are those that believe the reclusive Dolores was involved in witchcraft and ‘walked with the Devil’. What little evidence there is seems to point in the direction of her husband, Ramilles Brockletower, the local MP and JP who owns a large tract of land, ‘filched from the forest’ claim locals, and is consequently hated by his tenants. Faced with obstruction, corruption and interference, Cragg and his Doctor friend Luke Fidelis must use their own detective skills and a primitive judicial system to track down the killer. Blake conjures up a fascinating portrait of 18th century life full of superb period detail from a map of old Preston on the inside cover to the internal workings of a country house and the Coroner’s dinner of ‘baked marrow and mutton’.

                                                This first novel of Blake has the atmosphere of the period and is quite a mystery.  Georgian England is the apotheosis of wickedness and despite witnessing great social and economic reform and upheaval the nation was still rife with superstition, which Blake brings out well. Old fears and superstitions still abound but this is the Age of the Enlightenment when a new kind of rational thought process is taking root and forensic science is on the cusp of playing a key role in crime investigation.

                                                With no formal law enforcement in place, it is left to  Cragg and  Fidelis, to discover the truth. The story is told through Cragg’s dry-witted narrative and recounts the duo’s investigations into the murder and subsequent affairs. Fidelis is cheerfully irreverent though fundamentally Catholic in his beliefs, which plays off well against Cragg’s Anglican pragmatism. The ambitious and headstrong young doctor Luke Fidelis bases his  discoveries  on science rather than irrational judgment often take the cautious Coroner to the most unexpected corners of enquiry.

                                         We have a “ whodunit ” without a police procedural, a rarity in the genre. The historical facts are interesting and quite authentic; the story is an enchanting one and Blake’s treatment of rural folklore and archaic beliefs is masterly, and is particularly macabre in the final chapter.

                                      Blake’s prose is fluid, smooth, engrossing and very easy to read. He has managed to keep the formality of the era without making it sound like another language and he ever so slightly bent some aspects of custom to make it a little easier to connect to. Blake also succeeds in describing the difference between the classes simply by the way they speak. The way the characters talk you know exactly the place they occupied in society. Blake sets the scene for future novels as “A Dark Anatomy” is the first of a trilogy. Not only that, but in the era before computers, high tech analysis, DNA and finger printing murder investigations were not as straight forward. It is really amazing that any crime was solved at all! After the second death, however, everything seems to unfold swiftly. The ending is very interesting and the solution something one does not envisage.

                                   Blake  has  created an excellent double act in Cragg and Fidelis, two men of conflicting character and methodology, motivated by a strong sense of justice and some friendly rivalry, but both strong-willed, clever and determined to seek out the truth wherever it leads. Robin Blake’s story is historically informed, crisply written and has all the qualities of a classic detective novel and introduces the reader to a new detective from the past.



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