Book review: A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake

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Just as Sherlock Holmes made his London dwelling an address of worldwide renown, a certain townhouse in central Preston is making its mark on the literary map.

Cheapside may not quite be 221b Baker Street, London, but it certainly rings bells for those who regularly walk the streets of Lancashire’s largest city.

Robin Blake, a Preston-born author better known for his biographies of artists, has turned his hand to historical crime fiction and the first of a new series looks set to put both his talents and his old home town centre stage.

A superbly authentic and atmospheric murder mystery, A Dark Anatomy is set in the mid 18th century when Lancashire was one of England’s more remote provinces and the authorities tended to be a law unto themselves.

The man who must make sense of any legal matters, whether it’s land enclosure battles in Chorley or rumours of a body snatcher in Preston’s Friar Gate, is the methodical and doggedly determined lawyer and Coroner Titus Cragg.

Old fears and superstitions still abound but this is the Age of the Enlightenment when a new kind of rational thought process is taking root and forensic science is on the cusp of playing a key role in crime investigation.

To this end, Cragg’s invaluable sidekick is the ambitious and headstrong young doctor Luke Fidelis whose discoveries based on science rather than irrational judgment often take the cautious Coroner to the most unexpected corners of enquiry.

‘Death always has a cause,’ declares Fidelis, ‘and the cause leads to the reason, not the other way.’

The case currently gripping Preston is the brutal murder of Dolores Brockletower in the grounds of Garlick Hall, a country mansion in the leafy suburb of Fulwood, and as policing barely exists, it’s up to the Coroner to turn detective.

What is unsettling for Cragg is that no-one at the big house seems to care that the young mistress, daughter of a wealthy West Indian sugar planter, has been found with her throat cut ‘from ear to ear’.

Local gossip is awash with rumour and suspicion and there are those that believe the reclusive Dolores was involved in witchcraft and ‘walked with the Devil’.

What little evidence there is seems to point in the direction of her husband, Ramilles Brockletower, the local MP and JP who owns a large tract of land, ‘filched from the forest’ claim locals, and is consequently hated by his tenants.

Faced with obstruction, corruption and interference, Cragg and Fidelis must use their own detective skills and a primitive judicial system to track down the killer.

Blake conjures up a fascinating portrait of 18th century life full of superb period detail from a map of old Preston on the inside cover to the internal workings of a country house and the Coroner’s dinner of ‘baked marrow and mutton’.

He has also created an excellent double act in Cragg and Fidelis, two men of conflicting character and methodolgy, motivated by a strong sense of justice and some friendly rivalry, but both strong-willed, clever and determined to seek out the truth wherever it leads.

Combine these elements with a dark, compelling and sometimes wryly humorous plotline and there is every reason to suspect that the Preston crimebusters have a long career ahead.

(Macmillan, hardback, £12.99)