I’ve joined Mysteries in Paradise Europass crime tour simply because I won’t be travelling abroad this year and the idea of a virtual tour through Europe – even though perhaps to murkier places - appeals very much. The destinations are chosen for us but the books are not, so I’m looking forward to the choices of the others in the tour party. With crime fiction in such a vibrant state, there will be plenty of variety.
This tour starts in England and so I’m inviting you home to Lancashire, to Preston where I studied for my postgraduate diploma. We’re also going back in time to 1740. George II is on the throne and the body of Dolores Brockletower is discovered under a tree, her throat slashed.
There is no police force at this time. The duties of investigation falls to the coroner Titus Cragg. He enlists the skills of the young doctor Luke Fidelis to help shed light on events. This is the birth of a new investigative duo for it appears that A Dark Anatomy is the first in series.
Cragg and Fidelis do not have the wonders of modern forensic science at their disposal. They must work with intuition and glean their knowledge the hard way. Traipsing through the lanes and villages of Lancashire, assiduously visiting all the blacksmiths to trace the origin of the only physical clue, a horseshoe found in the vicinity of the corpse. Through interviews with unwilling or untrustworthy witnesses, they build up a character reference of the dead woman. Dolores, the wife of the squire, was not popular. She was far too feisty for that and, horrors of horrors, she refused to ride side-saddle. This strange behaviour and her violent death leading to darkly superstitious talk. Relations with her husband were strained. Mysteriously too the investigation is obstructed by local officials and the plot thickens nicely when her body is stolen.
The first person narrative of Cragg is very effective. The reader feels his feelings, thinks his thoughts and thus understands and appreciates his intelligence, his wit and his dogged tenacity.
As very little remains of pre-Victorian Preston, Blake has reconstructed the geography of the town from a medieval street plan and has played somewhat fast and loose with administrative detail (freely admitted in the afterword). I’m no Georgian historian, so this did not bother me. As a reader I can only say that the plot details felt right and of that time. For example, there is no blood surrounding Dolores’s body because wild pigs have eaten it. Dolores’s body is held pending post-mortem in an ice-house. So no obvious anachronisms except possibly for the the secret that lies behind Dolores death. A secret that I did guess, which felt too modern and caused me to question the central relationship of the book.
I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilers.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book, in particular the language. Titus Cragg is an eloquent narrator and the picture he paints of eighteenth-century life is a detailed one. Family names like Brockletower, Shipkin and Patten are so Lancastrian. I had to smile, when scattered within his erudite prose, Cragg uses Lancastrian vocabulary that I’ve haven’t heard for years: such as barmpot (a fool) or the following commentary about the more garrulous witnesses: if you know nowt, you’ll say owt. It’s not so far from that to my mum’s favourite mot juste: There’s nowt so queer as folk. So true, particularly within this tale.