Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Well-written historical series don’t just give information about a particular time and place (although they do that). They tell a story, too, that just happens to take place during a particular era. In this way, the reader learns about a period of time without it seeming like reading a textbook. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, the third in his series featuring Coroner Titus Cragg and Dr. Luke Fidelis.
It’s 1742, in the English town of Preston. One morning, attorney and town Coroner Titus Cragg gets a note from Phillip Pimbo, who’s a local pawnbroker and would-be banker. Pimbo indicates a legal matter, and asks Cragg to come to his establishment as soon as possible. By the time Cragg gets there, though, it’s too late. Pimbo’s been shot. On the surface of it, it looks like a suicide. But when Cragg asks his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to look into the matter, Fidelis isn’t so sure that Pimbo killed himself. There is a great deal of pressure to let the matter rest as a suicide, mostly because of the upcoming festival, the Preston Guild. The festival always brings in a lot of money, and the town’s leaders don’t want anything to spoil that. Still, Cragg has enough respect for his friend to start asking a few questions.
One possibility is that someone in Pimbo’s household was behind the murder. But there are other leads, too. For instance, Pimbo had recently backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, his business partner, Zadok Moon, launched a claim against the company that insured the ship, saying that the ship and all its cargo were lost. But when Cragg tries to track Moon down to talk to him, he finds that the man has disappeared. And then there are Pimbo’s various other business transactions, that might have made him enemies. What about his assistant, who has good reasons to want to take over the business? And why is the town’s mayor so eager to have the death declared a suicide and be done with the matter?
It turns out that Pimbo had a few secrets, and so do some of the other characters in the novel. As Cragg burrows deeper into the case, there’s another murder. And it’s clearly linked to the first. Now, Cragg and Fidelis have a pair of cases, and have to work quickly to find out the truth. In the end, they learn that the deaths are connected to the insurance case, to the African slave trade, and to connections among some of the characters.
The story takes place in 1742, and Blake depicts that era. For one thing, we learn a bit about the way banking and insurance worked in the days before large, commercial firms took over those businesses. Pimbo, for instance, wants to set himself up as a banker. As the story begins, he’s a goldsmith and pawnbroker, but wants to ‘branch out.’ Insurance, too, worked differently to the way it does today. There’s also some discussion of the important topics of the time, including the morality of slavery (for those wondering, both Cragg and Fidelis oppose it strongly).
Lifestyles and customs of the times are also depicted. As one example, Cragg learns that Fidelis’ mother lives with him. She has what would probably now be called dementia, and is cared for by Pimbo’s housekeeper, Ruth Peel. The housekeeper has no medical background of any kind, and no experience; she simply does the best that she can. It’s a look at the way the elderly were cared for in a time before care homes, modern medical knowledge, and so on.
It’s worth noting, though, that the language used is more contemporary. Readers who prefer more modern language, even in a novel that takes place so long ago, will appreciate this.
Cragg is the town Coroner, and as such, presides over inquests. So, parts of the novel take place in the local courtroom. Readers who are interested in the way court proceedings were conducted in the mid-Eighteenth Century will appreciate those scenes. Fidelis, being a doctor, makes use of the medical knowledge there was at that time; that, too, will of interest to readers who want to know about the role of the doctor in that era.
The story is written from two perspectives, both past tense. One, told in the first person, is Titus Cragg’s. So, we learn about Cragg’s home life. He is happily married to Elizabeth, an intelligent, well-read companion who turns out to be quite helpful in this case. The other, told in third person, is Luke Fidelis’. Readers who prefer just one point of view, and just one voice, will notice this. The two protagonists do compare notes, meet at the local inn or coffeehouse, and otherwise investigate together. But they also have separate lines of enquiry, and the reader follows both.
The mystery itself is ugly, as is the motive for the killings. But the story, while not light, is not particularly grim or gritty. There’s a sense at the end that life will go on, and that things will be all right.
The Hidden Man is a story of life in an English town in the mid-1700s. It features a complex mystery, and two sleuths who make use of their different, but complementary, skills to solve it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hidden Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 20 February/Tuesday, 21 February – China Lake – Meg Gardiner
Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth
Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – In the Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.