Instruments of Darkness – A Mystery by Imogen Robertson

The first thousand words of this historical mystery won a prize for its author in London, but I almost stopped reading after the first chapter.  Imogen Robertson redeemed herself  as she continued with a tale of murders and forensic experts in Instruments of Darkness.

Like any good murder mystery, the dead body begins the action; the first is discovered in the woods of Sussex. Robinson infuses a Gothic mood and English society manners into this late eighteenth century melodrama, with the American Revolution and the week-long mob scene in London, called the Gordon Riots, pitting Catholics against Protestants, adding to the excitement.

The key investigators are the unlikely team of Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist (not quite forensic scientist, but close enough) with a hidden past, and Harriet Westerman, feisty and intelligent wife of a Naval officer gone off to fight the war in the colonies.  The two complement each other, straying from British formality only when examining the dead bodies for clues. The action is all very civilized as they investigate key suspects – one, the gloomy and rich Hugh Thornleigh, brutally scarred by the war, who lives on the neighboring estate, and may be related to more than one dead body.

Robertson confounds the plot by flipping back and forth to another murder scene – this time in a small music shop in London; Alexander Adams, the shop owner, is fatally stabbed in front of his two young children.   A family crested ring immediately links the two murders.

The action starts slowly, with Robertson carefully embellishing each character.   As she seems to have so much to tell about each character, she struggles to reveal all the information at once.  Everyone has a past that catches up to the action eventually, and, at times, Robertson allows the historical context to take over the plot.  The think-out-loud conversations of her characters can be more confusing than helpful, as she draws your attention back and forth, and away – red herrings?  She throws in another murdered body now and then to keep your attention.

If you can be patient with the British understatement, and weave through the convolutions, you’ll get to an Agatha Christie type explanation and a surprise who-done-it ending.  The book is more about the relationships and the problem-solving, than it is about the murders.

I did enjoy the repartee between Harriet Westerman, a woman before her time, and Gabriel, a steady and equal partner – at a time in history when it was more likely to be two men on the case.  Robinson has established a new forensic team of sleuths; she is already planning the next adventure of Westerman and Crowther.

J.D. Salinger Slept Here

Curtis Hall, Ursinus College, 3rd floor

I have a cousin who went to Ursinus College, and stayed longer than Salinger. Her major was the MRS, which she successfully completed before her senior year.  No room is dedicated to her research.

In Michael Winerap’s New York Times article, J.D. Salinger Slept Here (Just Don’t Tell Anyone), Ursinus College has finally succeeded in putting Salinger’s old room to good use.

Salinger left Ursinus after one very productive semester, writing for the school newspaper, and spent the rest of his life avoiding academics. If anything, he proved that great writers cannot be taught (maybe with the exception of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Waiting until after his death, so he wouldn’t sue, Ursinus College has finally established the non Salinger scholarship for prospective writers.

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own maybe she was laying the foundation for free room and board, but then,  she never went to college.

Related Article: J.D. Salinger

The Peach Keeper

Be careful where you dig; you just might find some bones.

Just when I need a little magic, a little comfort, a happy ending –  Sarah Addison Allen writes another book.  The author of Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen, and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, creates another romantic Southern mystery in her latest – The Peach Keeper – full of secrets, a murder, and the powerful forces of friendship.

In digging up an old peach tree to make room for a more stately oak at the historic Jackson estate under renovation, Paxton Osgood discovers a skeleton and an iron frying pan.  The dead remains connect Paxton to Willa Jackson, whose grandmother has been keeping a secret for seventy-five years about Tucker Devlin, a charmingly ruthless traveling salesman.

Only their two grandmothers, old friends who are now in a nursing home, know the real story, which eventually unravels, connecting the next generation and reestablishing the power of the past.  Allen’s books always have some illusions in them, and in this one, she weaves in a few strange asides – shopbells that ring when no one is there; the smell of peaches in the air; cherries eaten out of pictures.   It doesn’t matter to the plot whether you believe or not.

The Peach Keeper is a fast, sweet read – an afternoon delight.

For more Sarah Addison Allen books:   The Girl Who Chased the Moon

Elizabeth Taylor – Her Characters Live On

Once a story becomes a movie, the characters’ images leave your imagination, and become the actors who bring them to life on the screen.  Elizabeth Taylor’s career gave her face to so many…

Hard to imagine these characters looking any other way:

  • Enid Bagnold’s Velvet Brown from National Velvet
  • Louisa May Alcott’s Amy in Little Women
  • Theodore Dreiser’s Angela Vickers from A Place in the Sun
  • Shakespeare’s Kate in A Taming of the Shrew
  • Ross Lockridge’s Susanna Drake in Raintree County
  • Edna Ferber’s Leslie Benedict in Giant

Elizabeth Taylor died today.

New York Times Obituary

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage – Hazel Rowley

When I read of the recent untimely death of biographer Hazel Rowley at age 59, I looked for her most recent book – Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.

I am next on the list at the library and look forward to reading about (from the NY Times)…

…”a long, vital and somewhat unorthodox partnership.  Here, too, there were longstanding indications of affairs by both partners, including his with Mrs. Roosevelt’s former social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and hers with the political journalist, Lorena Hickok…”

– Historical information and salacious tidbits…

Another Rowley biography that sounds tempting to read: Tête à tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre – also on my list.