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18th century

SECRET MISCHIEF . . . Between the covers

A new Cragg and Fidelis mystery from Robin Blake is always an event, so thank you, Severn House, for the review copy. For those  who have yet to meet this pair of 18th century investigators, here’s a quick heads-up. We are in the mid 1700s, in Lancashire, and King George II has not long since led his army in the field to defeat the dastardly French at The Battle of Dettingen. Titus Cragg is the County Coronor, and lives with his wife and son in Preston. His friend Luke Fidelis is a local doctor who is much admired by his patients, but viewed as highly suspect by some of the older medical fraternity in the area. This is the seventh in the series, and you can read my reviews of of a couple of the earlier novels here.

As ever, murder is the word, and a series of deaths in and around the town of Omskirk are linked to an archaic form of business plan for raising money, known as a Tontine. The investment plan was named after Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti and, to put it simply, was a pot of money where a number of people contributed an equal sum. The money would either be invested, with interest paid to the members, or used to fund capital projects. As time went on, and investors died, the fund became the property of the remaining members, until the last man (or woman) standing hit the jackpot.

Sounds like a good excuse to bump off a few people? Doesn’t it just! The first victim is, comically enough, a prize porker called Geoffrey. When Cragg is called to examine the corpse he thinks his time is being wasted, but when the late pig’s owner – one of the Tontine members – is shot dead a few days later, Cragg realises that the pig took a bullet aimed at his owner, and the shooter came back to finish the job.

One by one the Tontine signatories come to sticky ends: one is, apparently, hit by the sail of a windmill; another is found dead on Crosby beach, apparently drowned, but Luke Fidelis conducts a post mortem and finds that the dead man’s body has been dumped on the seashore. Things become even more complex when a reformed ‘lady of the night’, now a maid, is accused of pushing the poor woman into the path of the windmill sail. Cragg is convinced she is innocent, but faces an uphill struggle against a corrupt judge.

Not the least of the charms of these books is the description of Luke Fidelis as a medical man who questions existing – and faulty – medical procedures. There is a melancholy moment when he examines the young daughter of one of Cragg’s relatives, and finds that she is suffering from Consumption and is terminally ill. ‘Consumption’ is, obviously, archaic, but so descriptive of a disease that did, until relatively recent times, almost literally consume its victims.

Titus Cragg gets to the bottom of the mystery eventually, of course, even the investigation has his ship sailing dangerously close to members of his own extended family. Off at a slight tangent, I do love books with a map as part of the frontispiece. What was good enough for the Macmillan editions of Thomas Hardy’s novels is plenty good enough for Robin Blake, too. Another left-field thought: the Cragg and Fidelis tales occupy the same geography as the excellent Henry Christie novels by Nick Oldham (click to read reviews) – just a few centuries earlier.

Secret Mischief is addictive, superbly evocative of its period and, most importantly, a bloody good crime story. Also – and I can’t remember a novel doing so in a long time – it features a cricket match as part of the plot! It is published by Severn House and is available now.

 

THE GEORGIANS RETURN TO VAUXHALL

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After her success with The Familiars (click to read the review) Stacey has moved on a couple of centuries to the 1750s. Bess Bright has reluctantly abandoned her baby daughter Clara to the mercies of London’s Foundling Hospital. This astonishing institution, founded by Thomas Coram on 1741, took in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Foundlings3Zosha Nash (left), formerly Head of Development at The Foundling Museum explained, the care and love bestowed on the children was remarkable, even by modern standards. Their life expectancy exceeded that of many children at the time, and all were taught to read and write. The hospital was also famously associated with Handel, and it was in the  chapel that Messiah was performed for the first time in England

Stacey (below) explained how she had visited the museum and been overwhelmed by the poignancy of the exhibits, particularly the tokens – sometimes a scrap of fabric, sometimes a coin scratched with initials – left with the children so that they might be identified at a later date when the mothers’ circumstances had improved.

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Six years after leaving her, Bess Bright returns to claim her daughter, to be greeting with the shattering news that Clara is no longer there. She has been claimed – just a day after Bess left her – by a woman correctly identifying the child’s token, a piece of scrimshaw, half a heart engraved with letters. The authorities are baffled, but convinced that a major fraud has been perpetrated. Bess’s shock turns to a passionate determination to find Clara.

The Foundling will be published in February 2020.

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