Reflections on A Dark Anatomy

 upon its publication by Minotaur in America.


From the outset A Dark Anatomy was framed as a detective mystery with two fundamental elements: the location to be Preston, in the north-west of England, where I was born; the time to be about 200 years before I was born.


But what sort of detectives existed in English market towns in the 1740s? With no police force as a modern person understands it, justice was administered by magistrates assisted by a parish constable. Neither of these figures has much appeal as a fictional hero.


Magistrates were members of the oligarchy that arranged affairs in their own interests, with little regard for their "inferiors". Constables were not so much policemen as reluctant and unpaid draftees who often subcontracted the work to a deputy. This in turn might be the type of self-important idiot satirized by Shakespeare as Dogberry in Much Ado; or the sort described by Daniel Defoe as "decrepit superannuated wretches with one foot in the grave and the other ready to follow".


In the vast criminal sinkhole of London, thief-takers filled the void by "assisting" the  magistrates. They were essentially bounty-hunters who sometimes -- Jonathan Wild being the most notorious example -- doubled as gangsters. Other London thief-takers were not far off being prototypes of Philip Marlowe. But the provinces had no thief-takers and the investigation of crime was the responsibility of its victims. In the case of suspicious deaths, however, one person was always independently involved in the investigation, the coroner, and it is Preston’s coroner that I chose to make my detective.


His name is Titus Cragg, a forty-year old lawyer with a well-established practice. Appointed coroner for life he stands above local politics while his legal practice puts him across all the business of the town. He knows how the place works but is not compromised by the corrupt and dubious activities of the oligarchs. Not all coroners were conscientious. They were badly and grudgingly paid and it would not have been too difficult to float along giving a minimal service. But Cragg is cut from a different cloth. He is a believer in justice and is prosperous enough to do his job without minding the consequences. I see him as a rock of integrity in a shifting mire of corruption, political in-fighting and general mismanagement.


Cragg is not quite a professional investigator – more like a semi-professional who, in the best tradition of classic crime, does not work alone. One assistant is his sensible and practical wife Elizabeth, to whom he is devoted, and a second is his mischievous clerk Robert Furzey. But Cragg's third helper is his most significant, Dr Luke Fidelis.  As a physician he is well aware of how young and incompetent science, which he calls Natural Philosophy, still was. But, for the storyteller, the fact that Fidelis's judgement was so variable – sometimes as acute as Sherlock Holmes, sometimes as off the mark as Constable Dogberry – opens all sorts of possibilities for misleading plotlines, dead ends and red herrings.


The fun of historical fiction is that it draws the reader into a strange, lost time, though it is a time that contains the seeds of our own. No one can really know, let alone recreate, the past. But using all the information to be gleaned from contemporary sources, and standing on the shoulders of later historians, I have been very concerned to make my view of life in Preston in the 1740s a credible one. The secret, I have found, is to remember that human nature is constant.  The customs, clothing, tastes and manner of speech of 18th century people are not like our own, but these are superficial differences. The core of what it means to be human ­– the psychological substratum that underlies social and economic life, that created politics, law and the arts – is in all important respects the same now as it was in Titus Cragg’s Preston. 


Posted on May 30th, 2012


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