Book review: The Scrivener by Robin Blake

Preston-born author Robin Blake continues to put his old home town on the map as his brilliantly authentic and atmospheric Cragg and Fidelis murder mysteries go from strength to strength.

Tuesday, 10th May 2016, 10:00 am
The Scrivener byRobin Blake
The Scrivener byRobin Blake

And there are two new books to enjoy in a whodunit series which gives readers fascinating glimpses of Preston in the mid-18th century when Lancashire was one of England’s more remote provinces and the authorities tended to be a law unto themselves.

Just as Sherlock Holmes made his London dwelling an address of worldwide renown, a certain townhouse in Preston’s Cheapside has become the familiar home of methodical and doggedly determined lawyer and Coroner Titus Cragg, the man whose job it is to make sense of murderous matters.

Old fears and superstitions still abound in Lancashire but this is the Age of the Enlightenment when a new kind of rational thought process is taking root and forensic science is on the cusp of playing a key role in crime investigation.

To this end, Cragg’s invaluable sidekick is the ambitious and headstrong young doctor Luke Fidelis whose discoveries based on science rather than irrational judgment often take the cautious coroner to the most unexpected corners.

And there are certainly some dark and disturbing places to explore in The Scrivener, third book in this fascinating series and a superb page-turning drama which centres on the Preston Guild of 1742 and features ruthless businessmen, an obsessive love, the evils of the slave trade and plenty of real history.

The good people of Preston are looking forward to their ancient Guild, a festival of merriment and excess held every twenty years and this time being managed by the town’s mayor, Ephraim Grimshaw, an old adversary of Titus Cragg.

But the celebrations are plunged into a financial crisis when pawnbroker and would-be banker Phillip Pimbo, who has been ‘investing’ the town’s Guild funds, is found shot through the head behind the locked door of his office in Fisher Gate.

Coroner Cragg initially suspects that Pimbo’s death is suicide as the cash is missing but, using his newfangled scientific methods and logic, Dr Luke Fidelis is convinced that it’s a case of murder.

To untangle the truth, Cragg must dig out the secrets of Pimbo’s life, including his partnership with a mysterious, money-lending Liverpool scrivener called Zadok Moon who has been investing in a nefarious scheme to buy slaves from Africa.

Meanwhile, Fidelis uncovers a piece of missing Civil War treasure which may also have links to the case. As Grimshaw increases the pressure to come up with the Guild money, another death sets Cragg and Fidelis on a journey into the evils of the slave trade…

In the fourth book in the series, Skin and Bone priced at £13.99 in trade paperback, Blake plunges us deep into Engalnd’s social and political turmoil as the country wages foreign wars and the Enclosures Act takes its toll on much of the rural population.

In 1743, the tanners of Preston are a pariah community, plying their unwholesome trade beside a stretch of riverside marsh where many Prestonians by ancient right graze their livestock.

When the body of a newborn child is found in one of their tanning pits, Cragg’s enquiry falls foul of a group of merchants who have set their sights on modernising the town’s economy and who regard the despised tanners – and Cragg’s apparent support for them – as obstacles to their plan.

The murder of a baby is just the evidence they need to get rid of the tanners once and for all. But the inquest into the baby’s death is disrupted when the inn where it is being held mysteriously burns down.

Then Cragg himself faces a charge of lewdness, jeopardising his future as a coroner. But the fates have not finished playing with him just yet. The sudden and suspicious death of a very prominent person may just, with the help of Fidelis’ sharp forensic skills, save Cragg from ruin…

Blake’s memorable and breathtakingly convincing portrayal of 18th century Preston is full of superb period detail. From the food on the table and the intricate workings of local trades and professions to the ancient customs and beliefs that still hold many in their thrall, this is provincial life in all its political and social reality.

And seeking justice for both the rich and the poor are Cragg and Fidelis, two men of conflicting character and values, motivated by a strong sense of justice and some friendly rivalry, but both strong-willed, clever and determined to seek out the truth wherever the finger of blame may lead.

History and mystery in perfect unison…

(Constable, paperback, £8.99)