Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson is the third historical mystery featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and anatomist Gabriel Crowther (available October 11, 2012).
England, 1783. In Island of Bones, Crowther’s haunting past is at last revealed. For years he has pursued his forensic studies—and the occasional murder investigation—far from his family estate. But an ancient tomb there will reveal a wealth of secrets when laborers discover an extra body inside. The lure of the mystery brings Crowther home at last.
When I started reading this novel I didn’t really think that it would be an easy read. Perhaps that had something to do with the events which take place in the distant past or with the fact that by now I’m so used to fast-paced thrillers that I felt that a novel of this size and scope would be hard to go through. I’m happy to report that I was proven totally wrong.
Island of Bones is not only a thickly plotted novel that brings to life an era long gone, but also a well-written story that could offer reading pleasure to every fan of good fiction. The author does a great job with her characters’ build-up, while she also has a great eye for detail. As she takes us back to the past she doesn’t just take a brief look at it in order to create a convincing background, but she also seems, when the need arises, to reinvent it.
Let’s visit the scene of a public execution in the streets of London in 1751:
The excitement of the crowd had deepened, and as the first of the spectators caught sight of the soldiers leading the procession from the Tower a wave of jeers and whistles broke and rolled over them. The jugglers and singers paused in their work and struggled for a view with the rest… The rope snapped tight and Charles felt his own breath choked out of his throat as his brother’s legs began kicking free in the air. He put his hand to his collar and struggled to breathe. All around him was this impossible noise, the elation of the crowd. Its roar became one with the rushing of his blood in his ear.
Quite possibly, that was the exact moment that Charles Penhaligon started to become the man he was destined to be: Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist who would help solve crimes and make new discoveries in his field of choice. Some people would describe this decision as a fall from grace, since by taking it Charles renounced his name and his title as the Baron of Keswick, but others would point out that by leaving his past behind he paved the road to his future.
It is by the name of Gabriel Crowther that we come to know him. The year now is 1783 and he is visiting his one and only friend, the widow Mrs. Harriet Westerman when a letter arrives. Apparently the body of an unknown man has been discovered in a grave and, following his sister Margaret’s wishes, Mrs. Hetty Briggs, the woman whose husband has bought their family estate in Keswick, invites him over to solve the mystery of the man’s identity. The invitation is also extended to Harriet, so they set out together.
Gabriel’s visit there is his first in more than thirty years, and since then the place has changed a lot in some ways, and remained the same in others. And this is the first time as well, in just as many years, that he’s going to meet with his sister, who now goes by the name, or rather title, of Vizegräfin Margaret von Bolsenheim. He hardly knows this woman anymore, and as she’s someone that reminds him of the past, he doesn’t even pretend to like her.
He heard his sister take a hard breath and wondered how this scene had played in her imagination before he had opened the door. Had she expected him to be ashamed? Had she thought he would approach her on his knees, weeping in self-reproach the moment she put out her hands? If so, he felt a sudden burst of pleasure to have disappointed her.
Gabriel may be an odd man, but he’s not mean; it’s just that his code of honor has nothing to do anymore with high society and the hypocrisies that come with it. If someone needs his help, he will offer it. If someone has committed a crime he’ll see to it that he’s punished. And if someone can be saved from his own demons, he’ll do anything to assist achieve just that. And for a man of his profession he’s quite open-minded. He doesn’t consider the healers who use the old ways as charlatans; he doesn’t look down on people; and he’s willing to accept the error of his ways when the need arises.
He, though, is not the only eccentric, or at least extraordinary, character in the novel. We also have his hostess, a woman who goes through a lot of trouble just to put up with people and their needs; we have young Felix, his sister’s son, a playboy who’s haunted by his past; and then there’s Casper Grace, a healer and witch, who, though rich, prefers to live like a pauper. And we should not forget Harriet, his partner in crime-solving, a courageous woman with a great thirst for knowledge.
The characters make the story, the times provide the setting, and the new facts that bring to light long-buried truths place everything in context. One cannot but feel sympathy for some of the heroes and their plights, but one should also not forget that they are to blame for most of the ill fortunes that befell them.
This is a novel that has a lot to offer to the modern reader: pathos, mystery, legends, adventure, and at times plenty of action. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes good fiction. The genre here is not as important as the story. And the story is absolutely brilliant.
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Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese literature, and crime fiction. Follow him on Twitter: @lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.