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Book Author: Robin Blake

SKIN AND BONE by Robin Blake: Book Review

If we think back through history and imagine that times were easier or more law-abiding then, all we have to do is read any of the excellent historical mysteries on bookstore or library shelves.  In his latest novel, Robin Blake proves that intrigue, adultery, and murder were, so to speak, alive and well even in the small towns of England.

Titus Cragg is the coroner in Preston in the year 1743.  There are surreptitious goings-on among several of the well-do-do merchants of the town.  In the name of “improvements,” they appear to be determined to shut down Preston’s tannery and skin-yard.  Foul-smelling the industry may be, but it provides income for the town’s remaining three families of tanners.  The entire place is dirty, with fire heating the materials necessary to make animal hides into useful goods, but there is no other way to cure leather.

As the novel opens, a baby’s body is found in one of the handler pits in the tannery.   This leads to two questions:  who was the mother of this infant, and was the baby stillborn or did the mother kill her own child?

Titus would prefer that the infant be examined by his friend Luke Fidelis, a young physician who studied both in London and abroad, bringing modern techniques and theories to Preston.  Unfortunately, Luke is away, but the town’s other doctor, Basilius Harrod, is available to determine the cause of death.

Although Basilius is a friend of Titus’ and the more popular physician in town, his methods are old-fashioned, as his diagnoses often involve humours and ephemeral qualities or textures as causes of illness or death.  That is the case as he examines the baby, stating unequivocally that she was stillborn.  When Titus suggests he might like to turn the baby over for a complete look at her body, he recoiles.  “Touch it?  Certainly not, Titus….That might be dangerous….Troubled spirits….”

Then, when Luke Fidelis returns to the village and examines the corpse, he comes to the opposite conclusion, namely that the child was murdered.  So who is to be believed?

The settings and characters in Skin and Bone are perfect, easily drawing the reader into the lives of people who lived more than two and a half centuries ago.  Greed and profiteering are rampant, as are officials’ desire to come to a hasty if uninformed conclusion about a troubling issue.

Titus Cragg is an honorable man who combines strict principles with compassion for his fellow citizens.  This does not always work well with the mayor and the Council of Preston, men who are more eager to put unpleasantness behind them quickly and get on with their primary objective, obtaining as much money and power as possible through their positions.

When I reviewed The Hidden Man last year, I was struck with the author’s ability to make the 18th century come alive.  Robin Blake has done this again in Skin and Bone, a mystery that will grab you from the beginning and not let go.

You can read more about Robin Blake at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.


THE HIDDEN MAN by Robin Blake: Book Review

Small-town England in the eighteenth century might seem a very different place from twentieth-century America.  But theft, murder, and greed know no boundaries in time or space.

Titus Cragg is a lawyer and the coroner in the town of Preston.  As the novel opens he receives a letter from Phillip Pimbo, a seller of gold and silver in Preston and a respected citizen.  At this time in England, banks in small towns were almost unheard of, and valuables were kept in strongboxes in people’s homes or temporarily given to pawnbrokers who had secure safes until the valuables were needed.  Phillip has boasted to Titus in the past that his strong room was as safe as “the Bastille of Paris lodged inside the Tower of London.”

But Phillip also said that most of the money deposited with him and belonging to the town wasn’t in the strong room at all.  Instead, he has loaned the money out to a source that has promised a huge return.  The town, anxious to secure as much funding as possible in order to celebrate the Preston Guild, a once-every-twenty-year festival, agreed to this, but only Phillip knows to whom the money was loaned.  Now Titus has received a letter from Phillip referring to a “matter of wrong-doing,” and Titus wonders, as he makes his way to the pawnbroker’s office, if the matter pertains to the town’s money left in his care.

When Titus arrives at Phillip’s office to discuss the letter, the man is nowhere to be seen.  A sign on his office door says that he is not to be disturbed, but at Titus’s insistence Phillip’s chief cashier knocks on the door.  

There’s no answer, and the door is locked.  A locksmith is called but is unable to open it, so finally the door is battered down.  And there is Phillip Pimbo’s body, lying across his desk, a blood-caked hole on the top of his bald head.

Titus and everyone else in the office see the case as a case of suicide, although they don’t know of any reason that the respected businessman would kill himself.  But when the town’s doctor, Luke Fidelis, appears, he isn’t so quick to make the same judgment.  If, he asks Titus, Phillip killed himself, where is the wig he always wore?

The interaction between the two main characters, Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis, adds to the strength of the novel.  Both men are smart and dedicated to finding the truth, but narrator Titus doesn’t delve into matters as deeply as does the more scientific Luke.  There’s the slightest bit of Watson and Holmes here, but Titus is much brighter than Watson, and there’s no hero worship in Titus’s relation to Luke.  There’s just friendship, and that’s perfect.

You can read more about Robin Blake at this web site

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.