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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

‘Theft of Life’ by Imogen Robertson

Published by Headline,
22 May 2014.
ISBN: 978-0-7553-9016-8

When I happen across a new author I enjoy, it’s not unusual for me to go looking for his or her backlist.. This book sent me in search of the source material listed in the bibliography or acknowledgements, and that’s not usual at all.

Theft of Life is the fifth in Imogen Robertson’s series of 18th century mysteries featuring forthright amateur sleuth Harriet Westerman and reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther, and if any of the others address a darker or more shameful facet of British history I would be very surprised.

To any right-thinking 21st century person, the concept of slavery is anathema. To many in the late 18th century, it was part of everyday life, and few people above the poverty line failed to benefit from it in some way, either directly through the wealth it generated, or more obliquely by enjoying the sugar, cotton, tobacco and other products it made affordable.

It isn’t always a comfortable read (though don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort), and that is what sent me to the source material; I couldn’t quite believe the barbaric treatment of slaves which the author describes. Unfortunately the evidence is plain; if anything things were even worse than her account. A Georgette Heyer view of history this book is most emphatically not. Imogen Robertson has an extraordinary talent for bringing her background to vibrant, sometimes appalling life. Here is 18th century city life, from the gutter to the ducal mansion and many points between, full of telling detail and sensory evocation.

The plot is complex, and puts out tendrils as far afield as the West Indies; the solution, when it finally unravels, is simple and inevitable, but retains the element of surprise. The joy of the narrative lies in Harriet’s and Gabriel’s gradual unpicking of the various strands, crossing paths along the way with characters as vividly drawn as the setting, black, brown and white, some a little larger than life. Perhaps the non-white players are a little skewed towards goodness, but if Robertson feels she needs to make a point, it’s one which needs to be made.

The sum total is a rich, thought-provoking novel which is far more than a good mystery, though it’s definitely that. If it didn’t exactly leave me feeling proud to be British, it did make me glad I live more than two centuries later, when the world has moved on at least a little way.  Imogen Robertson is a force to be reckoned with, and a name to watch. I’ll certainly be looking for her backlist.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Imogen Robertson grew up in Darlington in the North East of England, studied Russian and German at Cambridge and spent a year in Russia in a city called Voronezh during the early nineties. Before she started writing full-time she used to direct children's television, film and radio. She decided to try and make a career out of writing after winning the Telegraph's 'First thousand words of a novel' competition in 2007 with the opening scene of Instruments of Darkness, her first book.
She has now written six novels; five in the Georgian Westerman and Crowther series and a standalone, Paris Winter. Paris Winter, Island of Bones and  have all been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger. She also plays the cello and lives in Bermondsey, South London.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog. I've not read this book yet, but the first in the series, 'Instruments of Darkness', is great... enjoy!