In early June 1780, London was ravaged by anti-Catholic rioting, fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment sparked by a recent act of Parliament that eliminated previously imposed penalties and restrictions on the British Catholic population.
Called the Gordon Riots after the leader of the uprising, Lord George Gordon, it was a weeklong reign of terror that decimated shops and houses and left many dead. And, as it forms the historical backdrop of Imogen Robertson's debut novel, it lends a heightened sense of danger and suspense to an already thrilling tale.
The novel opens away from London, in Sussex, as Harriet Westerman finds a dead man on her property. The unknown man carries a ring with him bearing the crest of Thornleigh Hall, the head of which is now an invalid whose oldest son disappeared years ago and whose second son is an alcoholic veteran of the war against the American colonies.
To find the murderer, Westerman enlists the help of Gabriel Crowther, a reclusive anatomist who is something of the town boogeyman by virtue of his profession and his "appalling lack of manners." They are well matched in spirit and intellect, and their developing friendship is one of the most delightful aspects of the novel.
Meanwhile, in London, shop owner Alexander Adams is murdered (in front of his children, in a particularly chilling scene), and his death is connected to the murder in Sussex. This much is clear from the beginning; the entire story is far more involved, and Robertson deftly and expertly doles out each reveal.
"Instruments of Darkness" is a thoroughly engaging novel, with rich prose and an intricate, suspenseful plot, with melodramatic, Gothic touches in perfect keeping with the historical period.
Robertson writes with such a lively, light touch that the grisly mystery never feels overwhelmingly dark or heavy. Robertson has already written another Westerman/Crowther mystery due in the U.S. in April; let us hope for many more.