Instruments of Darkness


Imogen Robertson


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

October 17, 2012

picked up Instruments of Darkness from the new books shelf of the library. I was attracted to the blurb on the cover: "A ripping homage to Dickens, Austen and Conan Doyle...will keep you up at night." -- The Seattle Times. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to such hype. I was disappointed by the simple story and obvious criminal. Also, I did not like the choppy style of the story, hopping between two parallel story arcs.

Instruments of Darkness is told in the format of alternating chapters. One set of chapters describes young Susan and her family living in a London music shop that is run by her father in the 18th century. The alternate, longer chapters take place out in the English countryside and describe Harriet, who is master of her estate (her naval husband is out to sea on a multi-year sailing voyage), and her neighbor, the reclusive, learned Mr Crowther, who spends his days studying anatomy. In the London thread, the reader sees a "Yellow Man" brutally murder Susan's father. In the countryside thread, Harriet asks Crowther to uses his anatomist skills to investigate a body that she discovered while out on a morning walk. The two story threads eventually come together in a single plot, but I did not like how the momentum of one story kept interrupting the other. The "young-Susan-in-London" thread is meant to inject narrative excitement - will the Yellow Man return to murder Susan next? - but I did not find the London story to be that interesting or convincing. Harriet and Crowther interview suspects and investigate the surprising amount of violent crimes that are committed, I wish the story had stayed focused on their efforts.

Because of a ring found on the dead man, Harriet and Crowther go to nearby Thornleigh Hall, which is currently ruled by Hugh Thornleigh, a hard-drinking retired army officer who was wounded in the American Revolutionary War. Thornleigh Hall is meant to be full of menace, populated with powerful people with hearts full of villainy, but the bad guys in this book are the weakest part of the plot. The schemes of the obvious criminal are transparent, it really doesn't take much of sleuth to figure out who dunnit and why.

Harriet has a younger sister named Rachel who steals the show when ever she is on stage. Unfortunately, Rachel seems to disappear from the second half of the book. (Rachel calls Harriet "Harry", which kept confusing me, as I thought she was addressing some other male character.)

This book reminded me of Only To Deceive by Tasha Alexander. Both novels feature a young, upper class woman who is essentially single. Both heroines investigate crimes in during the time of British Empire. Both novels suffer from the same problem - women in that era are not permitted to do much more than talk and party and sew. It is tough to put your heroine in genuinely thrilling situations when they are walking around in petticoats and leaving calling cards. Not a lot of physical adventure, nor is there a lot of evidence available to the investigator - most of the detecting is talking to suspects and witnesses. On the other hand, I thought Mistress in the Art of Death, another novel with a female investigator in historical England, was an excellent and thrilling novel.

Unfortunately, books of this time have to rely on an eventual confession, in front of witnesses, by the criminal(s), due to lack of evidence. I don't like that tired plot device. I also thought that the eventual fate of the Yellow Man was extremely improbable and convenient. Although this is apparently the first book in a series, I doubt I will be reading an additional volumes.