In Harris’s murky, 18th-century tale, London and Oxford are shaken to the core as the ramifications of murder ripple outwards. In a story that is written with an almost gothic conceit, New World colonist and anatomist Dr. Thomas Silkstone is enlisted to solve the details surrounding the horrific death of Sir Edward Crick of stately Boughton Hall.
In an era of infant anatomical investigative techniques, Thomas is at a loss at what could have caused the violent death of the pale-faced Earl of Crick. His beautiful sister, Lady Lydia Farrell, can only
look on in horror at her young brother sprawled across the bed, his clothes stained with slashes of blood, his face contorted into a grotesque grimace, his swollen tongue half protruding from his purple lips.
News of Crick’s untimely demise is quick to seep out of Boughton Hall in a tale that becomes even more shocking in the inns and bawdy alehouses. From the “gummy old widow to the sober squire,” the story is embellished with thin threads of conjecture. For Lady Lydia, the longer her brother’s body holds within it the secrets of his death, “the sooner time turns from a physician into an enemy.”
Amid gossip about Edward’s death, suspicion centers on Lydia’s officious Irish husband, Michael Farrell, and the notion that
he may have poisoned Edward for his inheritance. In desperation Lydia turns to Silkstone, imploring him to help uncover the truth behind her brother's mysterious passing. Amid more subtle collusion, we soon learn that Edward was a selfish and amoral cad
who in no sense was equipped to run Boughton Hall.
In her distinctly grisly Georgian tale, Harris paints the bloody mechanics of eighteenth-century anatomical techniques with fine brushstrokes. The drawing room of Boughton Hall seethes with an uneasy atmosphere thick with nagging suspicions and thinly veiled recriminations. Farrell’s calm smile lies in stark counterpoint to perpetually nervous Lady Lydia as well as the furtive motivations of the grotesquely disfigured James Lavington, who has known Farrell since their days in India.
Meanwhile, Lady Lydia defies convention in her enigmatic machinations, forced to endure her lot with fortitude and a weary resignation.
As to the mysterious, addled reveries of Lady Crick, the old dowager is finding that her emotional wounds are just too painful to bear.
In spite of the fact that the entire book is a tad thin, and none of the characters live up to the standards of the best of historical fiction, Harris
does xcel in positing some gruesome scenes. From the solid country estate of Boughton Hall to a hapless aristocrat, his beautiful sister, and her arrogant husband, Thomas attempts to slough off a series of evil intentions. With his life gravitating between days that are traumatic and disturbing, Thomas must learn to deal with people who have died under mysterious circumstances.
Although some readers will discern the central secret long before it’s revealed, this does do not diminish the audacity of Harris’s tale as it flickers between macabre imagery and the bloody power of forensic techniques that end up exercising a brutal power over both life and death.