Imogen Robertson’s Instruments of Darkness mixes eighteenth century forensic science, toxic family secrets, murder and mayhem and unconventionally plucky women in a compelling historical whodunit. The plot erupts with the discovery of a corpse on an estate outside London and doesn’t let up until a cataclysmic conclusion.
Harriet Westerman has retired from the sea to run her family’s estate in Sussex. She spent the early years of her marriage sailing aboard a ship in Her Majesty’s Navy with its commanding officer, her husband, Commodore Westerman. The birth of two children and the need to raise her younger sister have her landlocked but she doesn’t lack for adventure on shore. A man is savagely knifed on Harriet’s land and she stumbles across the body, opening the door to the neighborhood horrors. She insists that a reclusive scientist who is deeply involved in the new science of autopsies examine the body and the scene of the crime with her. The two form a reluctant partnership as events reveal worse threats and more people die.
Counterpoint to all the goings on in Sussex is the story of a brutal murder in a music shop in London and the fate of two young children who witnessed the murder and were orphaned by it. The London riots of 1780, in which Protestants destroyed Catholic homes and businesses, throws the scramble to escape the killer into high relief. The distant murders are connected with events even farther afield, a death in the recently-concluded Revolutionary War in America. A gold signet ring, a cheap tin locket, a bloody knife and a dynasty rife with corruption are central to the plot. It’s very clever but the most interesting element is the characterization. First-rate characters, independent, quirky, intelligent, tenacious and driven, they are each important to the mystery’s resolution and well-drawn enough to pique curiosity.
The history seems sound and is fascinating. The motives and methods are gradually exposed as terror mounts and the most innocent in the cast are in the gravest peril. Robertson has reprised her unlikely sleuths in a second mystery and they are good enough to revisit. I’m hoping it’s available in the U.S. because it would be a pleasure to spend more time in their company.
Instruments of Darkness: A Novel Imogen Robertson | Viking Penguin 2011