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Robin Blake

ROUGH MUSIC . . . Between the covers

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rbRobin 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.

rm coverTitus 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.

accrington_1744_mapI 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.

Skin and Bone

SKIN AND BONE …Between the covers

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Georgian England in the early autumn of 1743. The George in question is Number Two, and earlier in the year he had the distinction of being the last monarch to lead British troops in battle, that being at Dettingen, where an uneasy alliance of British, Austrian and Hanoverian forces – known, bizarrely, as ‘The Pragmatic Army’ – defeated those eternal adversaries, the French.

BlakeThis, then, is the England of Handel and Hogarth (at least he was English) and the looming threat from the Jacobites north of the border. Author Robin Blake, (left) however resists the easy win of setting his story in the bustle of London. Instead, he takes us to the town of Preston, sitting on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire.

Titus Cragg is a lawyer, and the coroner for the town. He is called to investigate a macabre and piteous discovery – that of a tiny baby found at the bottom of a malodorous sludge-filled pit, one of several used by tanners in the town to turn rough animal hides into leather. Once the muck and slurry have been washed away from the infant, Cragg discovers a nasty wound on the back of its head. It takes a more detailed examination by a local physician – Luke Fidelis – to reveal that the little girl did indeed die from violence, but of a much more sinister kind.

skin-and-boneThe investigations carried out by Cragg and Fidelis reveal a growing schism between the tanners and the wealthy men of property who run the town’s affairs. The leather workers are an inward looking community. This state is mostly driven by the fact that they live and work alongside the noisome waste materials – mostly faeces and urine – which are essential to the tanning process, and therefore most local people literally turn up their noses at the tanners. The burgesses and council-men of Preston, on the other hand, have their eyes on what they believe to be an acre or so of valuable land – ripe for redevelopment – currently occupied by the tannery.

What’s in a name? To answer the ill-fated Juliet, there is always something. Cragg, as his name suggests has something rock-like about him, while Fidelis has a touch of enigma and mystery. Fidelis, the more exotic of the pair, causes suspicion among the bluff Lancastrians of Preston, if only because his modern views and deep knowledge of the science of medicine contrast dramatically with the more superstitious practices of other local doctors. Cragg and Fidelis do eventually discover the truth about the awful death of the baby, but not before Preston is set on its collective ear by another murder and the downfall of one of its most respected residents and his family.

Skin and Bone scores highly in all the categories which make for good historical crime fiction. At its core it has an intriguing and inventive mystery, not just a standard murder parachuted into a period setting. The Georgian details are established without fuss, showmanship or over-anxious dollops of historical fact splashed on the canvas in the name of authenticity. Most importantly, the dialogue is natural and untainted by any attempt to create what the author might imagine to be the vernacular speech of the time. Cragg – and his wife – are likeable and convincing, while Fidelis provides just enough forensic flair to point his friend in the right investigative direction.

This is the fourth Cragg and Fidelis story and it came out in Kindle earlier this year. The hardback is out today, 25th October and the paperback will be out on 3rd November,  You can check further details of this and the previous books at Robin Blake’s own website, or his Amazon author page.

Blake Novels

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