First Sentence: It was a day on which the sun was a disc of polished brass, and flocks of white cloud chased each other cheerfully across a blue field of sky; the perfect September afternoon for a game of bowls.
When the body of a newborn is found in one of the tannery skinning pits, it is up to Coroner Titus Cragg, and his friend physician Luke Fidelis, to determine if the infant had died before or after birth, who was the mother, and who was responsible. The first inquest is interrupted by a near-fatal fire, after which Cragg is fired from his post. It’s clear someone doesn’t want the truth to be known.
The story begins with a very effective contrast from a pleasant game of bowls, to the rank odor of the tannery, to the pronouncement of finding the body of a newborn.
Blake provides a fascinating and frightening look at how medicine was practiced by traditional practitioners. We have the contrast of Dr. Harrod, who believes in astrology—“A thirteenth child born under Virgo. She is full of dread.”—and judging an illness by the visage of the person—“Touch it? Certainly not, Titus….Troubled spirits can be transferred in that way.”--, and Dr. Fidelis, who believes in science, and the advances in forensic medicine—“Of course, he would know nothing of the…lung-in-water test. … It is the test for stillbirth that they do at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London.”
Cragg is a very likable character. He takes his position very seriously, believes in justice tempered by mercy, and loves literature. The inclusion of literary references from “The Fable of Bees” and “Don Quixote” provide a sense of reality to the characters. Cragg’s relation with his wife is lovely and adds charm to the story. One can particularly appreciate Lizzie’s outrage that a woman whose child is stillborn, rather than miscarried, would be tried for murder. She also provides a woman’s observation and information to events, particularly during a time when men didn’t have casual conversations with females with whom they weren’t well acquainted.
Although the author does include one completely unnecessary portent, the formality of the dialogue creates a sense of the period without trying to replicate it—“What was an utter triviality a hundred years ago may be an utter gravity now.” True fans of Agatha Christie might find that Cragg and Fidelis remind them, somewhat, of Harley Quinn and Mr. Satterwaite. Or not.
“Skin and Bone” is a well-done historical reminding us that greed and politics are as old as time. The story does have a surprising climax and a very gratifying ending.
SKIN AND BONE (Hist Mys-Cragg/Fidelis-England-1743/Georgian) – G+
Blake, Robin – 4th in series
Minotaur Books – Oct 2016