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A must-read for lovers of intelligent historical mysteries
on November 1, 2013
Imogen Robertson's historical mystery series featuring Harriet Westerman and anatomist Gabriel Crowther constitutes one of the most intelligent examples of the genre out there. Circle of Shadows contains all of the features that make this series so rich and rewarding: a complicated plot; a well-researched, detailed 18th century setting; and a well-drawn cast of characters that feel true to the period.
In this fourth installment of the series, Harriet and Crowther travel outside of England for the first time, when they are called to one of the German states to investigate a murder. Harriet's sister Rachel and her new husband, Daniel, had been touring Europe for their honeymoon when Daniel was arrested for killing a woman. Harriet and Crowther have to identify the murderer in order to free Daniel, but what they discover during their investigation is political intrigue and the handiwork of a madman.
One of the things that I love about Robertson's novels as a whole is how detailed her 18th century world is. She's obviously researched the period deeply. It pays off in the realistic feel of her descriptions of the physical setting of the story, as well as her descriptions of the manners and mores of the characters. The 18th century is not a period that is used often in historical mysteries, so it has benefit of novelty, too.
Another plus for me is the deep cast of characters. Harriet and Crowther show up in every novel, of course, as do their friends and family, but so do other people that they meet during their investigations. Individuals that other authors might treat as minor characters come to life in Robertson's novels. For example, an important character in the second book in the series is Jocasta Bligh, who plays a key role in the mystery of that book; her background then gets explored in Robertson's third novel. Manzerotti, the spymaster who drove the plot of Book 2, makes a return appearance in this book and becomes a more fully rounded character. For me, the net effect of these recurring characters is to enhance the feeling that this is a completely realized world where characters have an existence that lives on beyond the pages of any particular novel. I hope that Pegel, who appears in this book as a young recruit into Manzarotti's spy ring, will show up again in another book in the series. He's just too potentially rich a character not to make a return!
The one drawback of this approach is that Robertson's novels have to be read as a series to most fully appreciate them. I wouldn't recommend starting with this book for readers who are new to Robertson's work. They should start at the beginning and enjoy the series as it develops.
Really, anyone who enjoys a well-written historical mystery should read Circle of Shadows and the other books in the series. I'm pretty sure you'll be glad you did!
An ARC of Circle of Shadows was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.