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Posts Tagged ‘coroner’

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.


LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE by Colin Cotterill: Book Review

Laos is a country far from the United States.  Unless you’re a history buff or “of a certain age,” as they say in magazines and newspapers, you may not be familiar with its history in relation to the Vietnam War.  Reading this novel is like taking a mini-course in the aftermath of that war’s history.

“I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed to a lead pipe.  I’d had something more traditional in mind….” That’s the opening of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave.

Dr. Siri is the hero, in every sense, of Colin Cotterill’s series of books set in the Laotian capital of Vientiane in the late 1970s.  The doctor is a passive Communist and ready to retire when the new regime takes over from the monarchy, but he’s forced into becoming the country’s one and only coroner.

In Love Songs he has recently married Madame Daeng and is looking forward to a relaxing weekend with her when he’s pulled out of the local cinema by the Vietnamese head of security.  Laos is an independent country, but it is very dependent on good relations with Vietnam, its more powerful neighbor.  So the doctor reluctantly follows Chief Phoumi to the former American compound where they find a young woman who has been run through with a fencing sword, an epee to be exact.

Then, a couple of days later, another young woman is found in a similar situation, run through with yet another epee.  What can be the connection between these two women, who as far as can be determined were strangers to each other?

The usual group of Dr. Siri’s friends appear in this novel.  There’s the police detective Phosy, his wife nurse Dtui, morgue assistant Mr. Geung, the doctor’s close friend Civilai, and of course the doctor’s new wife, Madame Daeng.  In addition to helping Dr. Siri, each has a story within the novel that helps bring the history of Laos into sharper focus. 

Although the reader knows from the beginning that Dr. Siri is in prison, it’s impossible to figure out how he got there and why. The mental diary in which Dr. Siri reveals his thoughts doesn’t tell us until nearly the end of the novel, and these thoughts are interspersed with the straightforward plot of the main novel.

Dr. Siri is a wonderful protagonist.  He’s smart, courageous, and pragmatic–he has to be to get along in the new Laos.  But he’s also caring and empathic, traits that are not highly valued at the time and place in which he lives.  It’s  the combination of both sides of his character that makes him so fascinating, as well as the multi-layered history of his country.

This novel, along with the others in the series, isn’t easy reading because the history of this country in the 1970s isn’t comfortable to read–it’s filled with torture and betrayals from all sides.  But knowing people like Dr. Siri and his friends are there fills the reader with hope.

You can read more about Colin Cotterill at his definitely off-beat web site and read an interview with him at the NPR web site.