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VINE VOICEon May 31, 2010
First Sentence: Gabriel Crowther opened his eyes.

Harriet Westerman, wife of a navy commander, has given up sailing with her husband to raise their family and provide a home for her sister at Caverly Park in West Sussex. When she finds the body of a man whose throat has been slit, she summons help from anatomist Gabriel Crowther. The victim has a ring bearing the crest of neighboring Thornleigh Hall. Was the man Alexander Thornleigh, the missing heir to the Earl of Sussex?

London music shop owner Alexander Adams is murdered. Before dying, he tells his daughter to find a box hidden under the counter. Was Alexander the missing heir and how can his children be removed from the city in spite of a killer and the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots?

Wonderful characters make this book a treat to read. Jane Austin fans will quickly associate Harriet Westerman with Mrs. Croft, the captain's wife from "Pursuasion." She has traveled, seen war, is outspoken and not to be put off. Her younger sister, Rachel Trench, is "Jane Eyre," in her attraction to the war-wounded Hugh Thornleigh, younger brother of the missing Alexander and the Mr. Rochester of our story. Gabriel Crowther is a scientist, and something of a recluse until being pulled into the investigation by Harriet and his own curious mind.

There are a lot of characters, including some real historical figures. It was occasionally is difficult to keep track of who is whom. However, they each played their part and added to the overall Gothic feel of the story.

Ms. Robertson convincingly transported me to Georgian England in sight, sound, dialogue appropriate to the period and historical fact. I had not known of the Gordon Riots until now. She also included a perspective of the American Revolution from the viewpoint of a British soldier.

There is a lovely, Gothic feel to this book, but it was not perfect. Happily, in spite of identifying the villains fairly soon, the motive remained a secret until the end. Although story did feel over-long, I was completely involved and never found myself skipping through it.

The book was engrossing and suspenseful, with interesting historical information. The different threads of the plot were brought together well in a slightly overly dramatic fashion.

The most important question is whether I would read another book by this author. The answer is a definite "yes," and it's already on order.

INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS (His Mys-Gabriel Crowther/Harriet Westerman-England-1780) - G+
Robertson, Imogen - 1st in series
Headline, ©2009, UK Hardcover - ISBN: 9780755348398
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Imogen Robertson's "Instruments of Darkness" is set in the village of Hartswood, West Sussex, at a time when the colonies were waging war against England. The male protagonist, the brusque Gabriel Crowther, is a recluse whose vocation is the study of anatomy. One day, a local woman, Mrs. Harriet Westerman of Caveley Park, has her maid give Crowther the following note: "I have found a body on my land. His throat has been cut."

The scene shifts to Tichfield Street near Soho Square in London. Residing there are a music store proprietor, Alexander Adams, and his two children, nine-year old Susan and six-year old Jonathan. Alexander is a widower who has broken off contact with his birth family for reasons that will later become clear. He ruefully states "that the past must be looked at squarely or it will chase you down," but he fails to follow this sound advice. Adams has the support of close friends, including a writer, Owen Graves, and Mr. and Mrs. Chase, whose single daughter, Verity, has caught Graves's eye.

How do all these characters fit together? Readers will need to be patient while the author presents us with puzzling scenarios that initially make little sense. Although Crowther and Harriet are not romantically involved (she is happily married to a commodore, James, who is at sea), the two collaborate in trying to learn the identity of the dead man as well as his killer. Harriet suspects that there is a connection between the murder and the well-to-do inhabitants of Thornleigh Hall. She insists, "There is something wrong in that house. Something wounded and rotten. I am sure of it." Living there are the ailing Lord Thornleigh, Earl of Sussex; his low-class, pretty young wife; Captain Hugh Thornleigh, who fought against the colonists and came back maimed both in body and spirit; and Hugh's steward, the obnoxious Claver Wicksteed.

"Instruments of Darkness" is reminiscent of Anne Perry's books, in that it examines the moral rot that can destory some titled and wealthy families from within. The mystery is not difficult to solve once the clues are laid out, but the villains prove to be so utterly evil that they cease to be realistic. Robertson goes back and forth in time and shifts settings frequently, which can be dizzying. In addition, Crowther and Harriet make for a strange pair. He is reticent; she is voluble. He is a man of science and reflection. She is a woman of action. For their own reasons, they go out of their way to learn the truth, with a bit of help from Harriet's eighteen-year-old sister. The conclusion is melodramatic, and the body count rises alarmingly before the dust finally settles.

To her credit, the author depicts her time period and settings nicely; the dialogue and prose style are pleasantly fluent. She shows how the redcoats underestimated the American farmers who took up arms against them. In addition, she explores the ways in which the skeletons in someone's closet can emerge without warning. The characters of Susan, her father, and Graves, are particularly appealing, and their story is poignant. Finally, Robertson shows how imperfect the criminal justice system was in those days. If Crowther and Harriet had not intervened, no one would have learned who the guilty parties were. Although this is not a top-tier novel--it is a bit too long and has too many subplots, including one about the bitter conflict between Protestants and Catholics--"Instruments of Darkness" will be of interest to readers who enjoy forensics and historical fiction with gothic overtones.
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on February 13, 2012
First for the good news. I started reading and could not stop until
I finished, despite it being many hours past my bedtime. The relationship
between the two main characters is compelling, and the scenes with the children
in London are believable and touching.

Now for the less good news. The writing is mostly serviceable, but occasionally
goes off the rails. A reference to Caravaggio in a scene description is jarring
and inappropriate. The main character has seen the "Parthenon in Rome," which is
a neat trick. (She must mean the Pantheon.) Worst of all is an episode in which
a man who is meant to be a sympathetic character offers his dog, whom he obviously
cares for, to be used to test a poison. The dog's death is not graphic, but it
seems completely unnecessary. Weren't there any rats or mice around? This is
important in a book which otherwise stages a battle between good and evil in
a pretty unsubtle way.

I also agree with other reviewers who find the ending unbelievable and melodramatic.
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VINE VOICEon March 13, 2010
The name of Imogen Robertson is probably best known to those who scrutinise the credits of the UK children's TV and radio shows she directs, or else to those who follow the contemporary poetry scene to which she contributes as both poet and poetry reviewer. "Instruments of Darkness" is her first novel -- a period murder mystery set in the late eighteenth century, at a time when the American Revolutionary War was at its height and had escalated to a global conflict. The book does not dwell on the events of that conflict, however, which feature more in backdrop, but instead concentrates on domestic events in London at the beginning of June 1780, when the capital was the scene of a short but bloody and violent anti-Catholic uprising, known as the Gordon Riots, events which will be familiar to anyone who has read Charles Dickens' "Barnaby Rudge". Interwoven with these historical events in London is a connected tail of a series of mysterious murders in or around the seat of the Earl of Sussex, Thornleigh Hall, which, it quickly becomes apparent, is itself home to a good few other mysteries.

Imogen Robertson weaves a lively and engaging tale, handling the story and its events well at many levels, evoking the customs, habits and foibles of the period with a deftness that is delightful and easy to read. The plot is nicely involved but never overly complex, while the solution to the mystery itself is neither obscure nor yet totally clear until the very end. One or two passages do tend towards melodrama, especially the work's climax, but somehow this all seems in perfect keeping with the work, which is all very Charlotte Brontë at times!

All of the main characters are wonderfully developed and the rapport that develops between them is every bit as excellently handled as the plot. All I all, I don't think I've enjoyed a murder mystery as much as this since the "Brother Cadfael" series of Ellis Peters. I do hope Imogen Robertson doesn't leave it here.
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on June 29, 2013
I had high hopes for this series but found it laborious and didn't finish this first book. I felt the author had a good sense of the time period but I found the frequent switching back and forth between locales awkward and unsatisfying. Normally I don't find this as a problem in a novel but for some reason it didn't work well here.
Is it possible to read a novel written today without the "f" word? It would be a treat to not have to suddenly cringe when trying to relax and enjoy a good read.
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on May 3, 2011
I'm a fan of mysteries, but not usually of historical fiction. But this was a well-written page-turner. Loved it. First-rate characters (and lots of them) and a nicely complex plot. My only complaints were a few howlers of innaccuracy (I'm a historian so I tend to notice stuff like that). (Just in case the author is reading her reviews....)

In the late 18th century, no one would ask for a glass of water. No one would WANT water, which was not safe to drink and regarded with suspicion. When Harriet when into her fake faint, most likely would have assumed (rather than asked for) that her host would give her brandy. And no one would have been drinking from a glass. No one. A pewter mug for the wealthy; a tin one for the not-so-wealthy. Nor would anyone have offered lemonade. Lemons? Nyet. Not in a country house in England just, oh, here are some lemons. Nope. Too expensive, rare, and unusual. Nor would "lemonade" have been on offer. A fruit toddy of some sort, perhaps, likely made with apples or some other local fruit.

There were a few other howlers that I can't recall at the moment. But never mind those. This is a terrific read. Can't wait for her next book.
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on June 23, 2015
Harriet Westerman is running a small estate in the ongoing absence of her seafaring husband. One morning, walking the grounds, she comes across the body of a man whose throat has been cut. She enlists local forensics expert Gabriel Crowther (described as a philosopher, since forensics had not quite developed in the mid-1800s) to help her in solving this crime, which very soon expands into multiple murders. The drama of a lost parent, combined with small children at risk, makes this a very readable tale. I enjoyed the character of Harriet Westerman -- a somewhat uppity woman with an overdeveloped sense of civic responsibility -- and the relationship she forms with Crowther. It had a decent plot as well.

There were a few things that kept this book from becoming a favorite of mine, however. One was the point-of-view issue. I'm a writer and I know how easy it is to want to look at circumstances from the p-o-v of multiple characters, and this IS possible to do, but it should have been handled a little more gracefully in this book. I kept asking myself, who is the principle viewer of the action here? There's a section on a battlefield in which she uses imperative sentences (YOU see this, YOU feel that) -- completely unnecessary and bumpy. Also, the author is given to the use of some really peculiar similes--offbeat ways of describing things. Here is one: "She could feel the bruises beginning to bloom under her cuffs like sprays of foxglove opening darkly under her skin." Um, what? It's just a weird description. Robertson is pretty good at describing gore and gets quite graphic in her recounting of Hugh Thornleigh's (he's a principle murder suspect in this book) experiences in the Colonies during the American Revolution. I could have done with a little less blood and guts, but I suppose it added to the Gothic themes in the book. Overall, it was entertaining, but I don't think I will be rushing out to buy another Robertson book.
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on April 25, 2011
I did hesitate a moment: novels set in Georgian England are so often of the "she turned from her admiration of the enameled Ormolu clock on the intricately carved mantelpiece, smoothing the silk of her gown, silk her father had brought her from Lyon, which her dressmaker had gathered into the latest flocked fashion, to gaze curiously at the satin-clad dandy before her..." style. Rest assured, Imogen Roberts takes us into the period as naturally as if we were simply living there. She is, so far as I can determine, utterly accurate in her detail, but the accuracy is executed with understatement and subtlety. Harriet Westerman is as bold, forthright, and well-educated as were many women of the period -- despite contemporary misconceptions -- and Gabriel Crowther is a faithful portrait of inquiring Georgian scientists. Other, minor characters are equally well-drawn, the plot is usually well-knitted, and my only reservation is that the story's propensity to leap about in time and space could be a bit jolting from time to time.

This is the debut of a series that I fully intend to relish. I miss the late Kate Ross, whose Julian Kestrel was becoming a more and more interesting character before Ms. Ross's untimely death robbed us of all the increasingly skilled and absorbing books I know she would have written. I believe Imogen Robertson's Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther will give much the same kind of pleasure that Julian Kestrel did.
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on March 10, 2014
I hate to hark back to "the old days", but where are the Agatha Christies, the Dorothy Sayers, the up and coming Anne Perrys? Too often we're fed a shallow plot, feeble use of the language, cheap titillating diversions to pad the lack of substance, and sappy emotional manipulation--not to mention political and personal agendas that quickly become offensive and boring. It's a sorry insult to the intelligence and good taste of those hoping for a story that is crafted as an art--not fifth grade reading level with an interest level to match.
Welcome Imogen Robertson! Characters with intriguing personality that we're drawn to like and to want to know better (so by the end of the book, the next installment is already on our mind), words chosen for economy and beauty, a plot with enough twists to engage an adult brain of at least average intelligence (I'd like to think maybe a little above average??), historical research applied with a satisfying balance of informative benefit without ponderous factual overload...What a good read!
I am thoroughly sated and eager to pick up the second adventure of Mrs. Westerman and Crowther. Hoping it will follow the successful trajectory with another equally excellent. I refrained from giving this a 5 star rating, only because it seems there's room for this author to grow, stretch a little, and then how could I express the exultation?
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on March 8, 2016
Beautifully written, nicely researched. Would have given it 5 stars but the f-word and an a bit of grammar "where we're at" felt anachronistic to me. I can easily see BBC making a series of these two unlikely partners.
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