— But you will be ready to say, what was your hope in doing this? — What did you look forward to? — To any thing, every thing — to time, chance, circumstances, slow effects, sudden bursts, perserverance and weariness ... Every possibility of good was before me, and the first of blessings secured ... — from Emma, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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October 5, 2012

Island of Bones




      'This was the home of a hermit, was it not?' Harriet asked as the trees closed off their views of the lake.
      'The Island was, yes, many centuries ago. Saint Herbert, friend of Cuthbert, lived here. This chapel is of a much later date, of course. I believe the family of Greta had an establishment here while King Henry was at Agincourt, and the chapel was part of that construction. Saint Herbert's original residence has long ago returned to dust.'
      Harriet pushed the branches clear of her way and emerged into the clearing. They must, she imagined, be in the very centre of the little island now. Much of the chapel was still intact; its grey walls, however, were heavy with greenery and there was no trace of the doors and windows that must once have completed it. She thought of the skeleton. Here was the same story in stone. The summer home of the ancient Gretas must have stood to the right. One proud wall still tried to rause itself upright from the rubble around it.
      'Mrs. Briggs told me that Mr. Askew suggested she build new ruins here, rather than a suVowther made no comment and she turned to see him standing in a square of sunlight that had struggled down through the trees. 'I told her she need only provide you with a place to experiment and they might have a hermit at no charge.'
      'How did she take to that proposal?'
      'She did not know you at that point, so presumed I was only funning.'
Imogen Robertson's third Gabriel Crowther/Harriet Westerman mystery, will be published here later this fall, but I was lucky enough to find a copy of the U.K. edition in the university library.  This one, which is excellent, begins in 1751, in the Tower of London, with a condemned man's last meeting with his brother, and then a hanging.  It then flashes forward to 1780, to a country estate in the Lake District, where Mrs. Henry Briggs, the current owner, is entertaining guests, the Vizegrafin Margaret von Bolsenheim and her son Felix.  Mrs. Briggs has decided to move the ancient tombs of two former owners, Lord and Lady Greta, now interred in a ruined chapel on an island on the estate, to the village church.  When her agent finds an extra body in one of the tombs,  the house party rows over to look, and the Vizegrafin asks if Mrs. Briggs would invite her brother to visit, as the body might interest him.

We know right away that her brother is Gabriel Crowther, and the Vizegrafin tells Mrs. Briggs that 'there is a woman, a widow now who seems to involve herself in his interests.'  This is probably because their investigations together have been well-chronicled, as Margaret has not seen her brother since she was a child.  I'm reluctant to say more about what Crowther's connection to the estate, as it's a  large part of how the opening chapters unfold, but this is his family story, just as the last book was Harriet's.

As in any good mystery series, the relationship between Harriet and Crowther, and the slow revealing of their histories, is what draws me back...

      He began to turn his cane between his hands, staring at the ground as the tip dug itself into the rotted leaf matter which was scattered over the floor. 'I do not know why I wished to come here.'
      'A little peace perhaps.' She ran her hand over the strange stone faces. 'You have found yourself caught amongst all your old family ties like a fish in a net. You must talk to an old woman who knows the misery of your childhood, you must discuss with your estranged sister the possibility that your father was a murderer. ... You must also contemplate the possibility that all your riches will be spent after your death on the card tables of Europe by your nephew.; She looked  up at Crowther. He was studying the pattern of shade on the floor of the chancel. 'I am only surprised, Crowther, that you have made this temporary escape. I half-expected you to leave Silverside this morning.'
      She waited.
      'Ha!' he said. She felt her jaw tense, thinking she had over-stepped the limits of their friendship in speaking so frankly, then realized he was not speaking to her at all. Instead, he thrust his cane towards her and with the air of a pointer spotting game, fell to his knees then produced a knife from his pocket and began to work at a gap between two flagstones some feet in front of her.
      'I need my tweezers. I should have brought my instruments with me.'
Harriet and Crowther always seem too modern for their times, but somehow that doesn't bother me. The plotting and the details are also strong.  There are ancient deaths to be resolved, and as in any good murder mystery, another death while the first is being investigated.  And there are elements of witchcraft and ritual, which do seem to fit in well with the period and the setting.

      'So you do believe Casper is innocent of this killing?'
      'Yes,' Miss Scales said simply.
      Harriet hesitated. 'There was mistletoe in the man's pockets.'
      'No doubt Casper put it there, to protect the man's spirit and stop it wandering.'
      Harriet shook her head. 'This mix of Pagan and Christian confuses me, Miss Scales. I cannot understand it.'
      'Dear Ms. Westerman, do not even try! Just know this:  belief in these old ways, braided as they are with Christian teachings, lie deep in these hills. And belief makes things powerful, very powerful, and we would all do well to respect that. Do no understand it. Respect it. That is all.'
All in all, a very satisfying book.  I just saw on Imogen Robertson's blog that a fourth book in this series, Circle of Shadows, was published in the UK this year.  I'm off to the online card catalog!

{The image, which doesn't have very much to do with the book, except that it's set in the same century, is a detail from an exquisite piece of needlework -- an 'overmantel' -- embroidered by Eunice Bourne in Boston in the 1740s.  It's on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, it's breathtaking, and I visit it every time I go there.}






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