Skin and Bone | Robin Blake | 2016 | Constable | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1743 and the town of Preston in Lancashire is uneasy – the town’s fat cats are threatening to overhaul many of the local traditions in the name of ‘improvement’. The mayor, businessmen and gentry all seem to be in cahoots to transform the town, motivated by the formidable Mr Scroop. They’ve even hired the ingenious Mr Kay with his mysteriously scientific surveying equipment to assess the area, not that he’s letting on exactly what he’s been hired for. And then the worst thing happens.
The body of a baby girl is found inside one of the vats in the leather skinyard, one of the places of industry that the local bigwigs wish to overhaul. The assumption is immediately, and not surprisingly, made that a loose woman has killed her fatherless baby to disguise her sin. But coroner Titus Cragg and his doctor friend Luke Fidelis are not so sure and the forensic evidence suggests that they are right. All well and good until the inquest, held in an inn, is halted by the inn’s unpleasant and unexpected fiery combustion. Fortunately, everyone gets out relatively unscathed but reputations are far harder to safeguard than mere flesh and blood.
I first met Cragg and Fidelis in last year’s The Scrivener and I fell for them instantly. Each of the books stand alone well and can be read out of order if needs be. This isn’t a period I tend to be drawn to usually but Robin Blake makes it fascinating by exploring it in so much detail within one community, and one that isn’t in London either. All levels of society are brought before us, from the poorest to the most wealthy, demonstrating that goodness has no correlation whatsoever with worldly possessions. And the one person who should know that better than anyone is Preston’s coroner Titus Cragg. This case, though, is particularly tragic, not only because the victim is such a small child but also because it hints at great trauma and tragedy in the lives of others. The community cannot help but be affected, regardless of the moral preaching of the town’s ‘betters’, who are perfectly happy to pin all the blame on its mother, whoever that might be.
Cragg and his wife Elizabeth are such a pleasure to be around, each highly opinionated and yet so generous of spirit. Cragg is a seeker after the truth, he is incorruptible and so he’s not a pushover. He also has a wider interest in the social and scientific developments of the day, keen to further his reading (and Elizabeth’s) whenever he can. Dr Fidelis is a different kettle of fish altogether, equally curious and thorough in his scientific investigations, but with his mind on other things as well – in this case, his acquisition of a fighting cock of all things.
There is such a cast of characters to enjoy here, including the town of Preston itself, so different from the town it is now and so vividly painted. I like that it’s so far from the more familiar streets of London. These are such original historical mysteries. I love the way that Robin Blake writes – he captures the times without overdoing it, there are so many interesting little details, so many dashes of local colour and humour, as well as insight into mid 18th-century thought. The rise of new technologies would have been a cause of much anguish to labourers – in the fields and in industry – and this makes a worthy theme to Skin and Bone especially when it is set beside such a satisfying and involving mystery.