Robin Blake (left) introduced us to Preston coroner Titus Cragg and his physician friend Luke Fidelis in A Dark Anatomy back in 2015, and the pair of eighteenth century sleuths are back again with their fifth case, Rough Music.
The title refers to an intriguing custom in English folklore, where people in a community would take to the streets in protest at someone – usually a man or his wife – who had offended them. The unfortunates or – if they were lucky – an effigy of them, would be paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of a cacophony of noise. Francis Grose described it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796:
“Saucepans, frying-pans, poker and tongs, marrow-bones and cleavers, bulls horns, etc. beaten upon and sounded in ludicrous processions”.
Devotees of Thomas Hardy will remember one such procession in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where it was known as The Skimmington Ride. Another name for the custom was Charivari. Older readers will recall that the late lamented Punch magazine was subtitled A London Charivari. In Georgian Lancashire, however, the display was known as a Stang Ride, and Rough Music opens with an unfortunate shrewish woman in what was then the tiny village of Accrington, being set upon by a mob who resent the fact that she brow-beats her placid husband. The episode gets out of hand, however, and when Anne Gargrave is finally brought back into her cottage, she is dead.
Titus Cragg with his wife and child have retreated from Preston to escape the ravages of a viral illness which has claimed the lives of many infants. They have fetched up in a rented house in Accrington, then little more than a scattering of houses beside a stream. Cragg is drawn into the investigation of how it was that Anne Gargrave died at the hands of her fellow villagers, but his work is complicated by a feud between two rival squires, a mysterious former soldier who may have assumed someone else’s identity, and the difficulty created by Luke Fidelis becoming smitten by the beguiling – but apparently mistreated – wife of a choleric and impetuous local landowner.
Cragg and Fidelis solve the Gargrave case after a fashion, but their work is just beginning. A disappearance, another three deaths and a mysterious house of ill-repute in Manchester tax their deductive powers to the full, and we are provided with ingenious – but plausible – solutions. The historical background is enthralling, but Blake wears his profound scholarship lightly. Just when I thought the fun was over, the book ends with a chance meeting in a Manchester inn between Cragg and novelist whose most celebrated book was brought to the big screen in 1963, and confirmed stardom on a certain Mr Albert Finney.
I have to admit to a not-so-guilty-pleasure taken from reading historical crime fiction, and I can say with some certainty that one of the things Robin Blake does so well is the way he handles the dialogue. No-one can know for certain how people in the eighteenth century- or any other era before speech could be recorded – spoke to each other. Formal written or printed sources would be no more a true indication than a legal document would be today, so it is not a matter of scattering a few “thees” and “thous” around. For me, Robin Blake gets it spot on. I can’t say with authority that the way Titus Cragg talks is authentic, but it is convincing and it works beautifully.
Robin Blake takes us to a pre-industrial rural Lancashire where trout shoal in clear, sweet streams and bees forage on the pure moorland heather, but he doesn’t flinch from the dark side of the idyll; there is prejudice, brutal justice and heartbreak. Rough Music is entrancing, but also a damn fine detective story. It’s published by Severn House, and is out now.
To read a review of an earlier Cragg and Fidelis novel, click the link below.