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Dark Waters (Cragg & Fidelis) by Robin Blake
Cover Artist: Antar Dayal / Getty Images
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781250006738
Date: 20 August 2013 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In 1741, Preston, England, lawyer and part-time coroner, Titus Cragg, learns that his drunken in-law, Antony Egan, has drowned in the river Ribble. Assisted by his best friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, Cragg conducts an inquest; Egan's death is ruled an accident. However, they begin to have their doubts when a patron at the Gamecock Inn, John Allcroft, is poisoned. Both victims were Tories and their deaths occurred within a week before the parliamentary election. Cragg's life is threatened when he investigates more Tory deaths, which appear to be part of a Whig conspiracy to turn the vote in their favor.

A parliamentary election turns bloody in Robin Blake's intriguing historical mystery, Dark Waters. I never realized the voting process in 1741 was such a long ordeal. There was pomp and circumstance, celebrations, rioting, harassment, intimidation and, in the case of this novel, murder. In those days, one's choice of candidate was never a private issue. Everyone insisted on knowing for whom his neighbor was voting.

In Dark Waters, thousands of freemen (owners of property) flock to Preston to vote. The city's population swells. The inns and bars become filled to capacity with drunken revelers. These are the ingredients for a ticking time bomb. To make matters worse, there are rumors of plague when scores of people become ill with flu-like symptoms.

Period clothing, food and customs are described in enough detail to make me believe Blake must have lived in Preston during the 1700s. As with his excellent debut, A Dark Anatomy, this novel is also seeped with much paganism and superstition.

During election week, a charlatan promotes and sells a health tonic, "Paracelsus' Patent Preservation", to a large crowd of spectators eager to purchase it. There is also the May Day Celebration consisting of the May Queen coronation and maypole dancing. The novel doesn't elaborate on the dance's purpose; however, I know from my own research that maypole dancing is a fertility ritual and the maypole is a phallic symbol. One of the novel's most hilarious moments is when Nick Oldswick, the watchmaker, observes the nubile women dancing around the maypole:

"They're all supposed to be virgins--that's a joke," he commented dryly. "But we must all agree to pretend, eh, Titus?"
One of the young ladies dancing around the maypole, who is definitely not a virgin, is Maggie Satterthwaite, daughter of the local rat catcher, Isaac Satterthwaite. She is being romantically pursued by two men even though she has a reputation for lifting her skirts for just about anyone. Meanwhile, Cragg's handsome best friend, Dr. Fidelis, falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious stranger, Lysistra Plumb; he comes to her aid when she is nearly trampled to death in the street by a mob of angry young men. Cragg still loves his wife Elizabeth. They are very romantic towards each other and I can't help but wonder why they still don't have any children. Perhaps Elizabeth needs to do some serious dancing around that maypole.

I was delighted to learn that Titus Cragg and I are both bookworms. Cragg, whose copy of Aesop's Fables is at the bookbinder, realizes the identity of the chief culprit behind the murders after remembering one of its fables. Also, he reads one of the stories, The Man of Law's Tale, in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. With its ribald humor, I often thought Dark Waters belonged in this collection. Other hilarious scenes in Blake's novel involve two coupling dogs and a lord whose genitals are afflicted with a bizarre ailment. There are also a host of oddball characters that could've waltzed right off the pages of The Canterbury Tales. The author does a superb job of bringing each character to life, no matter their age or station.

With its rustic, Olde World setting; pagan rituals; disturbing deaths; political upheaval; unique characters (including a terrific sleuthing team); and bittersweet romance, Robin Blake's Dark Waters is a must read for fans of historical mysteries. Honestly, I never indulge much in politics and civics was never a favorite subject of mine in high school. However, don't let politics deter you from reading this novel. Don't dwell too much on the politics and simply think of it as the background for a disturbing mystery. Try to concentrate on the characters themselves.

Reading historical mysteries has taught me an important insight into mankind's nature. Though his environment may change throughout the centuries, his wicked greed and desire for materialism never does. I definitely look forward to the next installment in the wonderfully macabre Cragg and Fidelis series.

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