Robertson, Imogen - 'Anatomy of Murder'
This second book by this outstanding new writer opens with Mrs Harriet Westerman and her companion, the reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther being called to the discovery of a body in the Thames in the London of November 1781. The victim appears to have drowned but upon examination by Crowther it becomes evident that he was in fact strangled. The rope used to bind the hands of the victim was a very peculiar kind and some research reveals that it is used for securing stage scenery.
It transpires that the victim was Nathaniel Fitzraven and he worked in and around a London opera house and travelled to the continent to procure opera singers. At that time Britain was at war with both France and the American colonists and the dead man was suspected of being a spy for the French. The deceased was a very repellent man and nobody seemed to have a good word to say about him, which magnifies the list of suspects.
In this multi-faceted story, between the chapters describing the difficulties of Mrs Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther in investigating the murder is another tale told about a much lower class woman named Jocasta. This woman earns her living telling the fortunes of the poor with the help of tarot cards. She lives alone except for the company of a puppy dog but is very friendly with almost everyone. Of particular closeness are the children, who because of poverty are forced to live rough on the streets and she tries to help them with food and often allowing them to sleep in the warmth of her small flat.
The relevance of Jocasta to the main story is difficult to fathom, until much later in the story when things start to fall into place. This story is told in a very halting manner as without modern communications, society had a much slower pace to it and news tended to travel mainly verbally, as reading was not a universal skill in 1781 and we are expected by the author to appreciate this. Nevertheless the story does build up some momentum and soon comes to a dramatic but satisfactory conclusion.
I found this book much slower than her first, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, when we met Mrs Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther for the first time but it was a very welcome development of their joint story and because of the erudition of this gifted author, very atmospheric indeed. The story is very well structured, with just the right level of period detail to transport one away from the worries of today to a here and now of yesteryear where Britain was involved in a war it couldn't win. We learn some more details of the background of the reclusive Gabriel Crowther and also of the poor husband of Mrs Westerman. I look forward to reading further details in Imogen Robertson's future books.
Terry Halligan, England