Imogen Robertson's "Instruments of Darkness" is set in the village of Hartswood, West Sussex, at a time when the colonies were waging war against England. The male protagonist, the brusque Gabriel Crowther, is a recluse whose vocation is the study of anatomy. One day, a local woman, Mrs. Harriet Westerman of Caveley Park, has her maid give Crowther the following note: "I have found a body on my land. His throat has been cut."
The scene shifts to Tichfield Street near Soho Square in London. Residing there are a music store proprietor, Alexander Adams, and his two children, nine-year old Susan and six-year old Jonathan. Alexander is a widower who has broken off contact with his birth family for reasons that will later become clear. He ruefully states "that the past must be looked at squarely or it will chase you down," but he fails to follow this sound advice. Adams has the support of close friends, including a writer, Owen Graves, and Mr. and Mrs. Chase, whose single daughter, Verity, has caught Graves's eye.
How do all these characters fit together? Readers will need to be patient while the author presents us with puzzling scenarios that initially make little sense. Although Crowther and Harriet are not romantically involved (she is happily married to a commodore, James, who is at sea), the two collaborate in trying to learn the identity of the dead man as well as his killer. Harriet suspects that there is a connection between the murder and the well-to-do inhabitants of Thornleigh Hall. She insists, "There is something wrong in that house. Something wounded and rotten. I am sure of it." Living there are the ailing Lord Thornleigh, Earl of Sussex; his low-class, pretty young wife; Captain Hugh Thornleigh, who fought against the colonists and came back maimed both in body and spirit; and Hugh's steward, the obnoxious Claver Wicksteed.
"Instruments of Darkness" is reminiscent of Anne Perry's books, in that it examines the moral rot that can destory some titled and wealthy families from within. The mystery is not difficult to solve once the clues are laid out, but the villains prove to be so utterly evil that they cease to be realistic. Robertson goes back and forth in time and shifts settings frequently, which can be dizzying. In addition, Crowther and Harriet make for a strange pair. He is reticent; she is voluble. He is a man of science and reflection. She is a woman of action. For their own reasons, they go out of their way to learn the truth, with a bit of help from Harriet's eighteen-year-old sister. The conclusion is melodramatic, and the body count rises alarmingly before the dust finally settles.
To her credit, the author depicts her time period and settings nicely; the dialogue and prose style are pleasantly fluent. She shows how the redcoats underestimated the American farmers who took up arms against them. In addition, she explores the ways in which the skeletons in someone's closet can emerge without warning. The characters of Susan, her father, and Graves, are particularly appealing, and their story is poignant. Finally, Robertson shows how imperfect the criminal justice system was in those days. If Crowther and Harriet had not intervened, no one would have learned who the guilty parties were. Although this is not a top-tier novel--it is a bit too long and has too many subplots, including one about the bitter conflict between Protestants and Catholics--"Instruments of Darkness" will be of interest to readers who enjoy forensics and historical fiction with gothic overtones.