Skin and Bone
Summary of Skin and Bone
“It was a day on which the sun was a disc of polished brass, and flocks of white cloud chased each other cheerfully across a blue field of sky.” So begins the fourth tale featuring Coroner Titus Cragg and his friend Dr Luke Fidelis, which is set, like the others, in Preston, Lancashire. Very soon the atmosphere darkens and Cragg is plunged into the mystery of a dead baby and the multiple political and personal machinations around it.
The year is 1743 and the tanners of Preston are a pariah community, plying their unwholesome trade on the western edge of town. Nearby is the stretch of riverside marsh where many Prestonians by ancient right graze their livestock. When the body of a new-born child is found in one of the tan-pits, Cragg’s enquiry falls foul of a cabal of merchants, dead set on modernizing the town’s economy and regarding the despised tanners – and Cragg’s apparent championship of them – as obstacles to their plan. First the inquest into the baby’s death is attacked by an arsonist; then Cragg himself faces a charge of lewdness, and of being unfit for public office, from which suddenly his whole future as coroner is under threat.
But the plot of the novel has more twists and turns to come, among them the suspicious death of one of the scheming merchants. In this deadly game the advantage passes back and forth between Cragg and his enemies as truth and justice lie in the balance.
Review of Skin and Bone from the fullybooked website.
Georgian England in the early autumn of 1743. The George in question is Number Two, and earlier in the year he had the distinction of being the last monarch to lead British troops in battle, that being at Dettingen, where an uneasy alliance of British, Austrian and Hanoverian forces – known, bizarrely, as ‘The Pragmatic Army’ – defeated those eternal adversaries, the French.
This, then, is the England of Handel and Hogarth (at least he was English) and the looming threat from the Jacobites north of the border. Robin Blake, however, resists the easy win of setting his story in the bustle of London. Instead, he takes us to the town of Preston, sitting on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire.
Titus Cragg is a lawyer, and the coroner for the town. He is called to investigate a macabre and piteous discovery – that of a tiny baby found at the bottom of a malodorous sludge-filled pit, one of several used by tanners in the town to turn rough animal hides into leather. Once the muck and slurry have been washed away from the infant, Cragg discovers a nasty wound on the back of its head. It takes a more detailed examination by a local physician – Luke Fidelis – to reveal that the little girl did indeed die from violence, but of a much more sinister kind.
The investigations carried out by Cragg and Fidelis reveal a growing schism between the tanners and the wealthy men of property who run the town’s affairs. The leather workers are an inward looking community. This state is mostly driven by the fact that they live and work alongside the noisome waste materials – mostly faeces and urine – which are essential to the tanning process, and therefore most local people literally turn up their noses at the tanners. The burgesses and council-men of Preston, on the other hand, have their eyes on what they believe to be an acre or so of valuable land – ripe for redevelopment – currently occupied by the tannery.
What’s in a name? To answer the ill-fated Juliet, there is always something. Cragg, as his name suggests has something rock-like about him, while Fidelis has a touch of enigma and mystery. Fidelis, the more exotic of the pair, causes suspicion among the bluff Lancastrians of Preston, if only because his modern views and deep knowledge of the science of medicine contrast dramatically with the more superstitious practices of other local doctors. Cragg and Fidelis do eventually discover the truth about the awful death of the baby, but not before Preston is set on its collective ear by another murder and the downfall of one of its most respected residents and his family.
Skin and Bone scores highly in all the categories which make for good historical crime fiction. At its core it has an intriguing and inventive mystery, not just a standard murder parachuted into a period setting. The Georgian details are established without fuss, showmanship or over-anxious dollops of historical fact splashed on the canvas in the name of authenticity. Most importantly, the dialogue is natural and untainted by any attempt to create what the author might imagine to be the vernacular speech of the time. Cragg – and his wife – are likeable and convincing, while Fidelis provides just enough forensic flair to point his friend in the right investigative direction.
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