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A Dark Anatomy: A Mystery (Cragg & Fidelis Mysteries) by Robin Blake
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Trade Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781250022219
Date: 28 May 2013 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

[Note: This review previously ran in our June 2012 issue.]
In Lancashire, England, 1740, the small township of Preston is rife with superstition and paganism. When the mysterious, reclusive Dolores Brockletower of Garlic Hall is found in the woods with her throat slit from ear to ear, some say it is the work of the Devil. Rumors of witchcraft and lycanthropy abound. The prime suspect is Dolores's strange husband, Squire Ramilles Brockletower. Titus Cragg, lawyer and part-time coroner, must ask his friend Dr. Luke Fidelis to help him uncover the dark secrets responsible for Dolores's death--secrets that will eventually destroy the lives of several more inhabitants of Preston.

A Dark Anatomy is one of the most macabre, bizarre historical mysteries I've read. Readers might think it was penned by Edgar Allan Poe. It has the type of shocking, grotesque revelations one would find in a grindhouse film. The novel's ending left me quite disturbed and confused, concerning the existence of moral absolutes. I sympathized with poor Dolores Brockletower who was cruelly labeled a monster because she didn't fit the mold of human perfection. Surrounded by poor, ignorant peasants who were ruled by an iron fist of religious hypocrisy, the poor woman probably feared for her life; her reclusion was understandable.

The main protagonist, a young, robust Titus Cragg, seems to be an amiable fellow. He and his wife Elizabeth are pleasant, down-to-earth people who attend church, cultivate a garden, and dispense food to the poor. They live comfortably in this caste system but don't take advantage of it by abusing others. The much older, wispier Dr. Luke Fidelis is more than happy to assist his friend Titus during Dolores's autopsy, a relatively new procedure in the field of forensic science, which is often viewed as sacrilegious and unholy. However, he is reluctant to employ the recently invented forceps during the birth of a child. Together, the oddball couple of Mr. Titus Cragg and Dr. Luke Fidelis make a great sleuthing team.

The author, Robin Blake, either performed an incredible amount of research or actually lived during mid-Georgian England. He explicitly describes the clothes, homes, customs, and beliefs of both peasantry and gentry in such a manner that I was left feeling fortunate to have been born in the twentieth century. To be honest, most historical mysteries make me feel this way. Thank goodness for modern medicine. Furthermore, reading A Dark Anatomy taught me much about court procedures, specifically how an inquest is conducted. Titus Cragg, a successful, influential lawyer, is a type of Perry Mason of the seventeen hundreds. To my dismay, however, I also learned that those Catholics who refused to join the Church of England were labeled dissenters and sometimes imprisoned.

During their investigations, Titus and Luke often compare suspects to characters in the tragedies of William Shakespeare. Indeed, A Dark Anatomy contains a vast assortment of unique characters, both righteous and diabolical, such as the blind spinster; the giant oaf and his gypsy mother; the bullying bailiff; the elderly, half-mad doctor obsessed with dissection; the effeminate architect; and the drunken bishop. All these characters and more compose a pastoral life--a life that appears tranquil and peaceful from afar but, upon closer inspection, conceals a dark anatomy of familial secrets. Despite the interference of superstitious peasants and bullying gentlemen, Titus and Luke will risk their lives to uncover these secrets.

Strange deaths, startling revelations, and supernatural elements ensure that A Dark Anatomy is a fast-paced mystery. Fans of historical mysteries who crave a truly weird, creepy plot will want to read this novel. (The only historical mystery I've personally read that comes close to this one's caliber, perhaps because of its supernatural elements and pagan characters, is Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon, which is set during the turbulence of England's Medieval Ages.) Foul language and gore are kept to a minimum, but frequent discussions on adultery and sexuality prevent A Dark Anatomy from being suitable for all ages. Nevertheless, adults will find it highly enthralling and difficult to dismiss. I look forward to reading future sleuthing adventures of Mr. Titus Cragg and Dr. Luke Fidelis.

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