A Dark Anatomy

Summary - An Historical Background - Selected Reviews

The first Cragg and Fidelis mystery begins with Coroner Titus Cragg being called to the corpse of a lady, the wife of the local squire, when it is found in woods near Preston. Her throat has been cut. It is his job to call an inquest that will reach a right verdict, and the investigation that follows has a number of twists and turns as Cragg tries to discover the evidence the jury will need to consider . His friend Dr Luke Fidelis provides medical and scientific knowledge and his wife Elizabeth gives him staunch moral support, in face of determined opposition to his methods from the town’s corporation.

 

It was published by Pan Macmillan on 4 March 2011.

 

A HISTORICAL NOTE ON 18TH CENTURY PRESTON

Mid-Georgian Preston was one of England’s ancient self-governing charter towns, pleasantly and strategically located in the heart of Lancashire, with a thriving agricultural market, and a significant concentration of craft workers amongst its stable population of below 5,000. In the 1600s the town gradually became Lancashire’s prime social and legal centre, and remained so until industrialization transformed and disfigured the town at the end of the century, turning it into the grimy and overcrowded manufactory that Charles Dickens called Coketown, the setting for Hard Times.  Today hardly anything pre-Victorian remains except the medieval street-plan around the central area: the three principle streets of Church Gate (now Church Street), Friar Gate and Fisher Gate,  leading away from the focal point of the flagged market and the site of the old timber-framed Moot Hall, where a 1960s office block of remarkable ugliness now stands.

 

Politically, like most other borough towns, Georgian Preston was an oligarchy. The council’s 24 members (or burgesses) appointed each other and parceled out the senior offices, including the Mayor and two Bailiffs, annually between themselves. Charter towns like this were virtual city-states where (in Tom Paine’s scathing words) a man’s “rights are circumscribed to the town and, in some cases, to the parish of his birth; and all other parts, though in his native land, are to him as a foreign country”.  These communities reserved the right to run their own affairs, and keep outsiders away at all costs.

 

I take a few liberties with details of local administration, not least in the Coroner’s office. In historical Preston the unusual custom was for the annually appointed  Mayor to sit as Coroner ex officio. But I wanted my investigator to stand apart from local politics, so I have imposed the more usual model whereby the Coroner was a Crown appointment with life-tenure, and independent of the Corporation. My other inventions in A Dark Anatomy include Garlick Hall, the nearby village of Yolland, and most of the cast of characters.

SELECTED REVIEWS

FT - TLS - The GuardianPublisher’s WeeklyThe Historical Novel Society (U.S. - nightsandweekends.com - Deadly Pleasures

The Financial Times

Review by Christopher Fowler

4 April 2011

Beer and beef for breakfast, and the Devil come down to earth: we are in 1740s Preston, Lancashire. Titus Cragge, the local coroner, has been summoned to investigate the death of a “rough riding hoyden”, the squire’s wife Dolores Brockletower, who has plunged through a tree to lie gashed, bashed and part-buried in the soil at its roots.

George II might hold the throne in the capital, but out in the wilds superstition and hearsay rule. Cragge teams up with energetic young doctor Luke Fidelis and the pair take faltering steps into the as-yet-unknown science of forensic pathology. Soon they’re crossing swords with the victim’s husband, and discovering that the corpse has taken a walk.

Despite hinging on an improbable act of physics, coupled with an 11th-hour surprise that makes Preston seem rather exotic, this is rollicking stuff. Cragge and Fidelis are an engaging duo, and their first investigation is like crossing Robert Louis Stevenson with The Archers.

 

The TLS

Review by Kathryn Sutherland

22 April 2011

In A Dark Anatomy history is engaged through literature and ideas. The year is 1740; the coroner Titus Cragg and his sidekick, the local doctor, Luke Fidelis, together constitute an Enlightenment project in miniature. Between them they represent the beginnings of a modern method in applying the procedures of law and forensic science to investigate the suspicious death of the wife of a local squire. The story is peopled with stock eighteenth-century literary figures, recognizable from the shelves of Cragg’s well-furnished library, while the pages of his much-thumbed volumes of the Tatler and the Spectator, guides to Georgian taste and fashion, offer inspiration for the solution of the novel’s mysteries. Cragg’s first-person narrative voice is nicely judged: historically informed and reticent in the right proportions.

Robin Blake’s crisply written mystery offers all the pleasures of a classic detective novel and introduces the reader to an appealing new historical sleuth.

The Guardian

Review by John O’Connell

12 March 2011

When was "the birth of forensic science"? In the first of a projected series starring a coroner, Cragg, and his doctor sidekick Fidelis, Blake puts it at 1740. It feels about right, though there's an odd moment when Fidelis proposes that a body be stored in an icehouse and Cragg expresses puzzlement. Did the preservative properties of ice count as arcane knowledge in Georgian Lancashire? Anyway, we're in Preston and the wife of a local squire has been found with her throat cut. Considered a witch by her servants, she was dark-skinned (the daughter of a Jamaican plantation-owner) and distinctly mannish: she even sat astride a horse when she rode it. Cragg is an elegant, urbane narrator with a knack for making even minor characters come alive – woodsman Timothy Shipkin is "the only man I have ever met who frowned with his whole face". Recommended.

 

Publisher’s Weekly  (U.S.)

May 2012

British author Blake (Fat Man’s Shadow) makes his mystery debut with an impressive whodunit, set in Lancashire and introducing coroner Titus Cragg and Dr. Luke Fidelis. On the morning of March 18, 1740, Cragg receives word that Dolores Brockletower, a squire’s lady and prominent horsewoman, has been found dead in a nearby forest. Rumors suggest that the devil himself was responsible for her death, based on evidence that Brockletower “dove down from the sky.” The real cause of death—a slashed throat—is more prosaic. The absence of a weapon rules out suicide, and leads Cragg to call in unofficial assistance from his medical friend, Fidelis. The doctor helps Cragg interpret clues at the crime scene, enabling the inquiry to advance over the opposition of the squire, an MP and magistrate. Blake turns phrases well (e.g., “I find that puzzles are either canine or feline”), and provides an inventive solution to the murder.

 

The Historical Novel Society (U.S.)

May 2012 

A Dark Anatomy (Minotaur Books), Robin Blake’s latest novel, is set in 18th-century Lancashire and takes the reader on a journey through time and technique. Blake deftly recreates Preston, a medieval charter town whose character was subsequently erased by industrialization. The reader is challenged to imagine justice in the absence of modern investigative tools and forensic science.

 

This is the mission with which Preston’s Coroner, Titus Cragg, is charged. When the squire’s wife is murdered, Cragg investigates using the sharpest tools at his disposal: observation, perception, interpretation and Luke Fidelis, Preston’s young doctor. Instead of relying on trite resolutions based on intuition, the supernatural or coincidence, Blake allows Cragg and Fidelis to explore the events in a realistically non-linear fashion. The obstacles raised against Cragg’s investigation remind us that, although culture, industry and architecture change over time, human nature is somewhat constant.

 

In this tale told in the first person, we accompany Cragg as he and Fidelis investigate. Cragg’s voice is accessible yet evocative, and Blake’s prose is quintessentially English, with a rhythm and accent pervading the reading experience. The reader is transported to Preston as the story entices the senses with the smell of leather, flickering firelight, and crisp temperatures and integrates nuances of Lancashire class structure, racism and sexism.

 

Although some may feel that the plot twist is broadcast prematurely, Blake’s writing more than compensates for that slight weakness. As the first novel of a trilogy, Blake has laid a solid foundation upon which to build. Cragg and Fidelis have space to grow and develop in the next books. I look forward to the next visit with these newfound friends.

 

nightsandweekends.com
Review by Kristin Dreyer Kramer
8 July 2012
When a novel takes place in the 1700s, it’s often set in the bustling cities of Colonial America. But author Robin Blake offers an intriguing look at life in a very different part of the world in A Dark Anatomy, the first in a new series of mysteries.

Across the ocean, the colonists may be setting up cities and forming their own government, but smaller communities around 1740s England are still governed the old-fashioned way. So when the squire’s wife, Dolores Brockletower, is discovered in the woods with her throat slashed, there aren’t any police officers or detectives to call to the scene. Instead, the local coroner is summoned.

Most of the time, Titus Cragg works as a lawyer—but his duties as coroner require him to investigate Mrs. Brockletower’s death, round up a jury, and hold an inquest to determine the cause. As he begins his investigation, he finds that several people in the community expect to find some dark secret hidden in the mysterious Mrs. Brockletower’s past. Some claim that she was a witch—and that the devil himself took her life. But the secret that Cragg and his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, uncover could be even more surprising to the people of eighteenth-century England than witchcraft.

In his first Cragg and Fidelis novel, Blake blends science, history, and mystery to keep readers engaged and eager to read more.

The story is definitely a twisted and tangled one, filled with superstitions, secrets, and surprises. But while the big twist is a strange one, it’s not entirely unexpected, since Blake drops plenty of hints about what, exactly, the Brockletowers may be hiding.

What makes the story truly captivating, then, is the history. A cultural studies scholar, Blake fills the mystery with details about life in 1700s Lancashire—from the workings of the legal system to medical practices and more. Even after you feel as though you’ve got the gist of the mystery figured out, you’ll still be intrigued by this Old World procedural, caught up in the details of the Cragg’s inquest, Fidelis’s examinations, and the steps that they’re forced to take to get the job done.

Meanwhile, although the two main characters aren’t developed in as much detail as their surroundings, they’re the kind of characters that you’ll look forward to following (and learning more about) in upcoming installments. Cragg is a good, just man who wants to do what’s best for the people of his community—and, if necessary, he’s willing to make a few allowances to make sure of the best outcome for everyone. Fidelis, on the other hand, is a more mysterious character—one who’s clearly hiding a few secrets of his own.

Though the mystery of A Dark Anatomy isn’t as gripping as it could be, the rich historical details easily pick up the slack. So while it may not be a must-read for mystery lovers, history buffs will find it fascinating.

 

Deadly Pleasures

Spring/Summer 2012

A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake (Minotaur Books 2011) Rating: A.  Although Robin Blake has written novels, non-fiction and radio programs, this is his first mystery and it is a fine beginning. Set in 1740 during the reign of George II, the story is located in the English provinces. The tale is narrated by Titus Cragg, who is the local coroner. He is also a lawyer and happily married. His wife Elizabeth is a significant support and sounding board, particularly when their views diverge.

 

The 21st century interest in forensic medicine as an important element of detection seems to have permeated historical mysteries as well as more contemporary ones. The title of the book certainly provides a clue to that, as does the importance in the unraveling of the mystery of Luke Fidelis, a friend and local physician who also performs autopsies as required. When the local squire’s wife is found in the woods with her throat cut Titus is summoned. Then, as now, superstition wars with science. Titus takes his responsibilities seriously eve if the local bailiff hinders him as much as he can.

 

The action moves swiftly and there are many surprises for the reader as well as the characters. Blake does a fine job of conveying a sense of time an d of the class structure that animates the community. There is a delicate balance between providing a sense of a past era and an awareness of the commonalities across time. Titus and Luke are not full time sleuths and they have to take care of clients and patients while trying to deal with the increasing number of dead bodies. As an ethical man Titus struggles with some moral as well as legal questions. Both  major and minor characters are revealed in all their complex humanity.

 

This is not only an absorbing read but it raises some interesting issues. Titus and Luke are men whose cases you will want to follow and whose next investigation one awaits eagerly.

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