Written by Tessa Harris — This is the sixth book in journalist-turned-novelist Tessa Harris’ engaging mystery series set in Oxfordshire in the 1780s. Dr Thomas Silkstone made his debut back in December 2011 in The Anatomist’s Apprentice, when he was approached by Lady Lydia Farrell to assist in proving her husband innocent of her brother’s murder. Since then, Lydia has lost her husband, been wrongly incarcerated in London’s notorious Bedlam asylum, and acquired two suitors – one of whom is Silkstone himself. In Secrets in the Stones she manages to get herself into another spot of bother. She will find herself prime suspect in a murder.
Newly released from Bedlam, Lydia has returned home to Boughton Hall, her young son Richard, and her father Sir Montagu Malthus. Sir Montagu is something of a tyrant and has grown accustomed to being the lord of the manor. With Boughton under his control, Lydia finds herself subject to his wishes. He is an unpopular man with many enemies, but it is Lydia who falls under immediate suspicion when he is found brutally murdered in his study.
The book actually opens nine years earlier, in Hyderabad, India, in 1775. A Gujarati merchant is on a secret mission to sell a diamond. The deal is a dangerous one. If he’s caught in the act, it will cost him his life. If he’s successful, it will make him a very rich man.
Returning to 1784, Dr Thomas Silkstone has been challenged to a duel by Nicholas Lupton, who is Lydia’s other suitor. Silkstone is left for dead, with Lupton fleeing the scene and heading north. Having been patched up by a local physician, Silkstone sets to work determining the weapon used to end Malthus’ life and which injury was the fatal one. It would seem that our victim was tortured before having his throat cut with a knife more commonly found in India.
There are two common themes running through this story. The first is the relationship between Silkstone and Lydia, something that’s been simmering nicely throughout much of the series. Thomas wants to protect Lydia, even if it means putting himself at risk. Their romance is constantly being thwarted, but they both remain steadfast in their devotion to one another.
The second theme is India, or, to be more specific, the ways in which junior members of the British militia and administration went about securing their fortunes during their time there. The sins of Lydia’s late husband and those connected to him are beginning to claim victims, some of whom meet most gruesome deaths. What were they involved in?
Thomas’ enquiries take him to London where he finds it necessary to infiltrate the group surrounding newly returned society hostess, Marian Hastings. She has a colourful history, interesting connections, and may hold the key to solving this mystery. With Lydia’s life in peril, Thomas cannot afford to make any mistake.
The dynamic between Thomas and Lydia is engaging. He’s an intelligent, resourceful young man who doesn’t let anything stop him – even a near fatal injury. Lydia works well with him by being his sounding board. She isn’t weak or feeble; which could have made her rather annoying. Thankfully, she’s a character you actually care about, even if she does have the odd understandable wobbly moment. She wants to help Thomas where she can, albeit in a rather limited capacity. Her position and society’s views of women’s roles stifle her involvement somewhat. It will be interesting to see whether her role will adapt into something more significant in later books. Will Thomas and Lydia become Georgian Oxfordshire’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt?
This book’s key strength is the research that’s gone into it. Anyone familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s early Sharpe novels will find themselves smiling, as aspects of the book set in India are very reminiscent in terms of description. The depictions of life in Georgian England are detailed enough to draw you into Thomas and Lydia’s world. Tessa Harris clearly knows her subject material and her writing doesn’t just tell a story, it teaches you a little of the period’s history, especially about the developing medical specialism of becoming an anatomist. It’s something you’ll either love or hate, but does actually make this book all the more fascinating.
The book is a little slow to get going, but once you get into it you’ll be hooked and ready for the next instalment even if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series. A must-read for anyone with an interest in crime fiction with a forensic focus, or historical fiction set during the 18th century.
You could also try Robin Blake’s The Scrivener, which is set around the same time.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars