The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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March 11, 2011

Sparkling Instruments of Darkness

What I really want to tell you about Imogen Robertson's Instruments of Darkness is just that I enjoyed reading it, very much, from the first pages to the last. Every character (there are many of them) was appealing, even the creepy ones. and the two story lines were romantic, wry, suspenseful, and historically interesting, all things I look for in my reading for pleasure.  The reviewer in the Washington Post said that the plot was 'loopy' (a great word, and it was), and added that if you like this kind of thing, you would probably like this book a lot. I do, and I did.

The book is set in 1780, with some flashbacks to the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Breed's Hill in the early days of the American Revolution. (It was a good twist to see these described from the Redcoats' point of view.) One story line is set in Sussex, where Harriet Westerman, who is running Caveley Park while her sea- captain husband is away at war, calls on her neighbor, Gabriel Crowther, a reclusive anatomist, when she finds the body of a murdered man in her copse. (This all sounds very dark and sinister, and I expected it to be, but somehow it's mostly light and sinister.) The murder seems linked to the once-prominent family at Thornleigh Hall, where Lord Thornleigh lives on incapacitated after a stroke, while his beautiful wife (who would have been wonderful clay in Jane Austen's hands, too) languidly entertains her neighbors over tea.
After this moment of relative animation, Lady Thornleigh sat back in her chair again, watching Harriet's continuing surprise with real pleasure. She looked away again to examine the middle distance of the golden air.
      'It is remarkable how little some people know about what is going on in their own house.' A hand lifted to her face and she bit her full lower lip a second, pulling on one dark ringlet. 'And it is not even a very big house.'
 My second favorite character is the wonderfully named Claver Wicksteed, the Thornleighs' steward, who 'was prettily made, like a flashy price of furniture for my lady's chamber, but Crowther doubted the craftsmanship,' and who seems to have an unnatural hold over young, alcoholic HughThornleigh.

The other story is set in London, where a widower who calls himself Alexander Adams runs a music shop and cares for his young son and daughter with the help of his friends.  The two stories eventually intersect (not a can tell that they will, long before they do) and the ending is very dramatic in its loopy way.

One of the things I liked best about this book is that Robertson brings in late 18th-century history, science culture, social norms, etc. etc. without getting bogged down in them, and doesn't try (I think this was deliberate) to be overly-authentic.  The story isn't silly (terrible things happen), but  her characters do and say things that they wouldn't (was the f-word even around in colonial times? who knew!), and that adds a freshness and dry humor to her writing that I found very appealing. (Faux Jane Austen can sometimes be very grating.)  As I was reading Instruments of Darkness, I was hoping that Imogen Robertston had written or was writing a sequel, and I found out (thanks, Annie!) that there are actually two more books that will hopefully make their way here soon.

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Ann said...

Audrey, thanks for your comment over on Senior Common Room. This seems the most appropriate place to answer your question and say that yes, the second book takes Harriet and Crowther into London and introduces a new element to Crowther's story and from what I've read about the third (which is only out this month) it takes that story on. I hope so, because there were a couple of really interesting new characters involved and I want to know more about them.

Anonymous said...

You have caught this book perfectly. Thank you for a lovely reminder of a book I enjoyed, and for giving me the push to order Imogen Robertson's next book.

Ann Summerville said...

I stopped by your blog today. Great review and how pleasant to find a blog that isn't dedicated to vampires!

Thank you for visiting!

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