"I find that puzzles are either canine or feline. Some are like a dog that barks and wants to play. The dog runs and leaps around, just out of reach, but you can be confident that, sooner rather than later, it will tire and be mastered. Much worse are the problems that retreat from you, like a cat that creeps under your garden shed. No amount of cajoling will bring it to hand ..."
Robin Blake's A Dark Anatomy is a superior historical crime mystery. It wears its period detail and research easily, and remembers to tell an engaging story first and foremost, and build on the layers of the past as an assist to that process, rather than a barrier. All that sounds obvious, I suppose, but for every C.J. Sansom - who achieves this too - there are many historical novels that do not strike this balance. It is high praise, but I think comparisons between Blake and Sansom are worthy.
Blake's era is 1740. A Dark Anatomy - the first in a series - tells the story of Coroner Titus Cragg's investigation into the death of the wife of the local squire, Dolores Brockletower of Garlick Hall in Preston. He is ably assisted by his doctor friend, Luke Fidelis. While this sounds quite modern in some senses - a coroner and a doctor and the procedural process this implies - A Dark Anatomy takes place on the brink of modern policing and detection, on the cusp of a clearer legal process for murder investigation. On the edge, therefore, but not quite there. This means Cragg and Fidelis are constantly up against it, that their eighteenth century ideas and sensibilities are sometimes out of step with ours, that the judicial system still seems primitive. But these are strong, resolute characters, and against corruption and interference, we root for them to prevail.
While many things seem completely alien to 21st Century thinking - and one ghoulish scene towards the end epitomises this divide - one of the things that I like about this novel is that Blake has felt no need to be extra barbarous just because he is writing about the past. Some historical novels pile on the thumb screws, the burnings and the plague of boils to a greatly overdone extent, whereas Blake is careful to achieve a balance for his 1740, which makes the whole experience more enjoyable, more immersive. Sure there is violence and gruesome murder, but it is not completely overblown, like some Enlightenment era mystery spoofed by Palin's Ripping Yarns. Cragg and Fidelis are learned, compassionate men of their time - not necessarily out of step with it, merely slightly ahead of the curve. They are very engaging for this and the story is totally compelling.
At which point it is important to say that one of the reasons for this is the confident understanding of his era that Blake shows. When the detail appears, it is expertly woven into the storyline, or the dialogue, so there are very few of those very tell-tale forced source details that haunt other historical novels like Banquo's ghost. Not often, for example, are Fidelis and Cragg worldly wise to the extent that they know every aspect of the era they inhabit, are familiar with every writer, every world event, every idea. They know some, but not all. They have a sense of the world around them, but not everything reaches Preston. They are not bizarrely aware of some piece of information that even 21st Century historians would find esoteric. This, I think, takes considerable skill.
And, it's a rollicking good yarn, filled with intrigue, excitement, and for Cragg, the odd brush with death. The senses work overtime with the richness of the description of inn-cooked chops, toothless poachers, midnight roads, and farting soldiers. When the story moves towards its conclusion, the chase is thrilling and there are twists and turns that are unexpected and great fun. It is a story marked with that deceptively easy storytelling gait of Sansom's Shardlake series, and bodes well for a successful run out for Cragg and Fidelis in books to come.
It may be that the series will take a turn for the darker, and this is often hinted at in A Dark Anatomy - there is talk of werewolves, of possession, the devil walking abroad. This is a different darkness to the "get out the red hot pincers" approach I was lampooning earlier, more that deep undercurrent of superstition and otherworldliness that novels set in the past can achieve - much as that other "anatomy", Andrew Taylor's superb The Anatomy of Ghosts, dwelled on so beautifully. One senses this in Blake's writing, and it will be an impatient wait for the next in the series.