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Posts Tagged ‘17th century

A Dark Anatomy

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Having been enthralled with Blake’s third and fourth books in the Cragg and Fidelis series, I felt it only right to go back and cover the ones I’ve missed. This, then, is the first book of the series. Having gone from the latest to the first, I expected to be less impressed, for it’s natural for writers to grow and improve with their work, but all I can say is this must have been a heck of a debut, for it matches his more recent novels in quality, style and content.

And I also expected some sort of lengthy introduction to the characters and the setting, and to experience the moment when the two title characters of the series meet and become friends. But no. Not for Blake. We are thrown straight into the world as it stands with no messing about, for a mystery waits to be untangled. That was rather refreshing, I think, for ‘origin stories’ can often take up enough of a first book that they rather eclipse the plot. Not so: Dark Anatomy.

The plot of this first book revolves around a squire’s wife found dead in the woods with a cut throat. But this is no simple murder. Far from it. For there lurk deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction among the locals, marital troubles, potential dark magicks brought back from the New World, troublesome con-men, secretive itinerant workers, stolen bodies and so much more. I won’t delve any deeper into the plot than that for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that I had more than one surprise as the plot unfolded. The plot itself was a work of genius and if anything is better than the other two I read, for the solution is simply masterful and ingenious.

Blake paints a picture of Regency north-west England that is at once realistic and immersive, and yet accessible and eminently readable. His characters are believable and the protagonists sympathetic. The whole thing comes out as a well-wrapped package of mystery that will give you a few very happy hours opening.

I highly recommend all Robin Blake’s books, but start with this one.

The Scrivener

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Every now and then I come across a new series of books and wonder ‘why haven’t I come across these before?’ This is most definitely one of those. Robin Blake has created an immersive series set in, for me, a largely unknown era.

The Scrivener is in fact the third in a series, currently of 4, of mysteries set in mid 17th Lancashire. The book is billed as a Cragg and Fidelis mystery. Cragg is Preston’s coroner, and his friend Fidelis is a doctor. Between them, their skillsets and authority give them most of what they need to pick apart complex murders and plots, but it is not quite that straightforward. In fact, the book is written from the point of view of Cragg, and Fidelis seems to be more of a supporting character. In fact, Cragg’s clever and forthright wife is almost as helpful in their solution as Fidelis, though I have thus far read only one of the four books.

The Scrivener is a complex plot, which seems to have several threads with at best tenuous connections. A businessman shot dead in Preston, who seems to have been swindled. A trade mission to Guinea which is being investigated by an insurance agent. A trove of Civil War treasure found on Preston moor by a man now suffering a dreadful disabling medical condition, a will with peduliar conditions… it’s a wealth of fun for the mystery fan. The threads tie up nicely as the book draws to a close in the manner of all good mysteries. If I had one complaint about the plot it was a minor dissatisfaction that not everything in those threads is fully detailed and viewed by the reader. Some of it is reduced to a single line of second hand report. Still, this is merely the tidying up of the case. It just set my OCD twitching. The one that got away still nags at me, but enough about that in case I cause spoilers.

The writing is excellent, in that Blake manages to evoke the feel of the 17th century and create a brooding atmosphere while at the same time making everything relevant to the modern reader, easy to digest and at times perfectly light-hearted and enjoyable. The characters are likeable and believeable. They do not so conform to stereotypes that they  are common, which is nice, since mystery protagonists often do. Again, with characters, there is one thing that nags at me, which is that the protagonists (or Cragg at least) is at times a little too good and politically incorrect for the time, in respetc of slavery and bear-baiting, for example. It really doesn’t spoil the book, mind, and probably makes it accessible to a number of readers who would otherwise be put off. Blake’s history and social culture of 1740s Lancashire is stop on, thorough, and fascinating, to the extent that I lost track of the things I learned in this book. Best of all, for me, is that I live just across the Pennines from Preston and have spent quite a bit of time in the area, so a lot of this is quite familiar to me.

I would recommend this book (and therefore probably the series) to readers of historical fiction, and to lovers of mystery. To those who fill the middle group in that Venn diagram, you’ll love it. I see readers of D.E. Meredith’s Hatton and Roumande mysteries loving Robin Blake, for example.

Written by SJAT

May 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm

Highwayman Ironside

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I’ll warn you at the outset that this is a review of a short story, not a full novel, since I know a number of folk don’t read short stories. To be honest, I rarely do, except when they’re penned by authors whose full works I regard very highly. Then, often the shorts are side-adventures of their main characters from their novels and thus I tend to read them as part of a series.

I have had Ironside sitting on my kindle, bugging me to read it for quite some time. The reason I hadn’t? Precisely because it was an independent short story and not part of an ongoing series, and with my towering reading pile, there was no easy space to slot it in. But it was never removed from the list, because the author – Michael Arnold – is one of my absolute faves in the historical genre at the moment. He’s something of a ‘golden boy’ for me, since each time he releases one of his ‘Stryker’ novels, I know damn well it’s going to end up in my top 10 at the end of the year. So despite not having got round to reading this short work, I knew I’d enjoy it. And then, surprisingly, last week I found a book in my reading list had been withdrawn temporarily, and I had time. Well, how nice.

Highwayman Ironside is a quick read. Roughly a third of the length of the majority of novels on my kindle, I raced through it rather quicker than I would like, since I hate reaching the end of a book I’m enjoying. And, sadly, the problem with HI is that I had just got into the characters and the swing of things when it ended.  Still, I am not downhearted, partially because for less than the price of a beer, this is a few hours of top-notch entertainment, and partially because the more people tell Michael that this is a lovely intro to the characters and can we now have a novel, the more chance there is that he might do just that!

If you are not familiar with Michael’s books, then shame on you! Check out my reviews on the right-panel listing under ‘Stryker’. You’ll see just how highly I rate them. The Stryker novels are set during the English Civil Wars and follow a Royalist captain on a series of adventures. The character has been compared to Cornwell’s Sharpe, though I prefer Stryker myself. So enter a new milieu in the form of Highwayman Ironside. The tale is set in the 1650s, in the aftermath of the series of bloody civil wars that have devastated the land. They feature a trio of criminals on the highways of southern England, each of whom is interesting in their own right, led by Samson Lyle, known as the Ironside Highwayman.

A former Parliamentarian during the wars and a close companion of Cromwell himself, Lyle has become sick of the new regime, having witnessed firsthand the slaughter in Ireland and, disillusioned with the lack of change under the new revolutionary government, he has been named a traitor and a criminal. Driven by a sense of righteous revenge over the death of his loved ones, Lyle now rides the highways, seeking out those he sees as responsible and doing them mischief.

As you can see there is considerably more to the character than a simple highway robber. He is no Dick Turpin. To some extent, I occasionally caught a shadow in the story that made me think I was looking at the future of Captain Stryker. This story takes place over only three different scenes, yet tells an exciting tale of robbery, single combat, chases, infiltrations and investigations, flight and even a somewhat romantic interlude. In all, the story is well worth the read and I urge you to have a go. And then, hopefully, we’ll have bought enough copies to make Michael pick up his quill and pen a full-length tale of the Ironside Highwayman.

Written by SJAT

January 16, 2015 at 3:08 pm