Robertson, Imogen - 'Island of Bones'
This third book by this outstanding new writer opens with Mrs Harriet Westerman and her companion, the reclusive amateur anatomist Gabriel Crowther being called in July, 1783, to the discovery of a body in his ancestral tomb in St Herbert's Island, Derwent Water, Cumberland. The victim appears to have been stabbed. Gabriel Crowther is the wealthy, close friend and neighbour of Mrs Westerman and they live near each other in Sussex. Crowther is entitled to call himself 'The Baron of Keswick', as he inherited the title after the tragic murder of his father in 1751. His older brother, the normal heir to the title was accused, tried and convicted of the murder of his father and hanged. However, Crowther decided to ignore his destiny and, calling himself Gabriel Crowther instead, sold his father's property and invested the money. He then spent several years studying in Europe to become an anatomist, which is the eighteenth century equivalent of a medical examiner or forensic anthropologist, and as recounted in the two earlier books he uses his skills, with the help of Mrs Harriet Westerman, in solving murders.
When Crowther and Mrs Westerman arrive in Keswick in the Lake Disrict they go to the former ancestral home which is now owned by a Mrs Briggs, and there they meet several relations whom have not met together for several years. Crowther is not very happy to meet his younger sister or his nephew, both of whom seem to take a mutual dislike to him. To Crowther's intense irritation the servants and the local village people keep referring to him as "My Lord" and he finds this a barrier to getting to reacquaint himself with his former surroundings. The deceased's body that had been recovered from the tomb has been relocated by the orders of the local magistrate and Crowther does not delay in getting to grips with investigating its condition and what was the cause of death.
Meanwhile Stephen the son of Mrs Harriet Westerman, who has accompanied his mother to Keswick along with his tutor Mr Quince, cannot wait to go for rambles around the lovely countryside. Whilst out and about, Stephen is very surprised to meet a talking jackdaw owned by a very unusual man called Caspar, who seems to live completely out in the open. Caspar is a strange character and will figure very prominently in this story. He is a very gifted apothecary who is very knowledgeable about all the herbs, plants and grasses and which ones are suitable to cure all the ailments that effected people at that time. He is greatly respected by all the village and people often give him food and drink after he does them all favours and provides cures.
In this multi-faceted story, between the chapters describing the difficulties of Mrs Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther in investigating the murder is another story told about a much lower class woman named Agnes who is a sort of apprentice to Caspar and she has been kidnapped and bound and gagged and is hidden in a disused mine. The story keeps going back to her to see how she is is surviving which adds to the collective tension.
All of the different strands of this very fast moving but historically evocative story come together in the final denouement. I thought that this was the best of the three books that this talented writer has written so far. The first one, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, was exciting and an introduction to her new and unusual characters and her second, ANATOMY OF MURDER, was good, but a little slow to develop, whereas this one, I found very difficult to put down; it had a lot going for it, multiple elements of plot and many different characters, but such was the author's deft plotting, that I never felt a loss of concentration. If you enjoy a good, fast-moving historical thriller I urge you to buy this one.
Read another review of ISLAND OF BONES.
Terry Halligan, England