Questions and Topics for Discussion
In 1781, the city of London seethes with paranoia and darkness as Britain struggles to triumph over the French at sea. No one, not even the social elite, can fully escape the weight of the war’s heavy toll.
One such victim is Captain James Westerman, an accomplished naval officer who suffers a grave head injury at sea after capturing an intelligence officer from a French vessel. He is taken to London to convalesce in what would be called an insane asylum, were it housing patients of less wealth and acclaim. His wife—the fiercely independent and clever Mrs. Harriet Westerman—their two children, and Harriet’s sister take up residence in the nearby home of the young Earl of Sussex in order to stay near the captain’s side.
Soon, Mrs. Westerman—having gained a measure of fame for cracking a series of mysteries at Thornleigh Hall—is called upon by the king’s government to investigate the grisly murder of one Nathaniel Fitzraven. Publicly known as an employee of His Majesty’s Opera House, Fitzraven was also regarded among British intelligence as a potential pawn in a web of traitors leaking Britain’s most precious secrets to her enemies abroad. Westerman again enlists the help of the reclusive, scientifically brilliant anatomist, Gabriel Crowther, and the two delve into the mystery.
At the same time, in the rookeries across town, the well–known fortune teller Jocasta Bligh reads ruin in the tarot cards of a young woman named Kate Mitchell. Jocasta tries to warn Kate of impending danger, but to no avail: Kate is soon killed in a terrible carriage accident. Jocasta knows better than to accept Kate’s death as a mere mishap and sets out to find Kate’s murderer, accompanied by her dog Boyo, her message boy Sam, and her ever–present deck of cards.
While Jocasta digs for clues in the seedy London slums, Westerman and Crowther find themselves digging deeper and deeper into the glamorous world of His Majesty’s Opera House. A new season is under way, and the internationally renowned Italian castrato Manzerotti is taking the stage with the equally distinguished soprano Isabella Marin. Westerman and Crowther’s investigation takes them behind the scenes at the opera, into private meetings with Manzerotti and Marin, and to soirees thrown by an ingratiating patron of the arts, Lord Carmichael.
As the body count grows higher, a killer circles closer and closer to Westerman and Crowther’s investigation. Their discoveries crescendo into a stunning climax, uniting Westerman, Crowther, and Jocasta in a grand battle against evil forces and bringing another wave of shocking deaths and scandalous revelations to London. Filled with riveting twists and turns, the emotionally charged and impeccably researched Anatomy of Murder closes in the same way it opened: dark, devastating, and begging for another investigation.
ABOUT IMOGEN ROBERTSON
Imogen Robertson worked as a television, film, and radio director before becoming a full–time writer. She is the author of three Westerman/Crowther novels, Instruments of Darkness, Anatomy of Murder, and the forthcoming novel from Pamela Dorman Books, Island of Bones, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Award. She lives in London.
A CONVERSATION WITH IMOGEN ROBERTSON
Q. Anatomy of Murder clearly benefits from your meticulous historical research (along with your fabulous imagination). What facts from your extensive research struck you as wild, unexpected? What surprised you the most?
Thanks! I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that castrato opera singers were still the great stars of the stage in the 1780s. Trying to imagine the sound of that voice now is incredibly difficult, though I think the countertenor Iestyn Davies probably gives us the best idea. He has a wonderful CD of Porpoa arias out at the moment—do have a listen. Researching the recruitment and training of these singers was fascinating, but what struck me most was the fact that the vast majority of these boys never had a glittering career at all, and sometimes their voices grew distorted and unpleasant. Imagining the individual tragedies behind those facts was a great inspiration for the book. Reading the trials and baroque executions of spies in the period, such as Frances Henry de la Motte and David Tyrie, was also shocking and underlined just what was at stake.
Q. On your blog [imogenrobertson.wordpress.com], under the “See and Hear” heading, you’ve posted a video where you visit and discuss some of the locations featured in Anatomy of Murder. Did you scout locations for inspiration before you began writing? Which locations did you most enjoy visiting and writing about?
Plot tends to come before location; then one begins to inspire the other. As most of Anatomy of Murder is set in London where I live, I knew a lot of these locations already. As the story began to form I visited and revisited specific places to flesh out individual scenes and sequences. I would stand opposite the Admiralty Building on Whitehall and imagine Mr. Palmer making his way through the courtyard, or in Berkeley Square thinking of the children playing there and mentally replacing the black cabs with carriages. There are some lovely eighteenth–century interiors still in existence all around England, some very rich, others more modest, and I use them to get a rough idea of the homes of my characters. Often the process is a mixture of going
to those places now, then studying pictures, furniture catalogs, and contemporary descriptions. Writing the next in the series,Island of Bones, was very different as it is set in the English Lake District. There, walking the hills and lake shore was important to figuring out how the book was going to work in the first place.
Q. Your grasp of the vocabularies and dialects of various social classes in eighteenth–century London is impressive. How did you learn to write in such specific voices?
Being a novelist is like acting. I play the characters in my head until they’ve developed their own way of speaking, but of course like any actor you need to research your role. For my characters—from the educated men and women, to the aristocrats, professional classes, and shopkeepers—I take a lot from the letters and diaries of the time. Plays satirizing contemporary manners can be a very useful source for all classes, as well.
For those people who didn’t leave a lot of written material behind, it’s a mixture of imagination, educated guesswork, and listening to Londoners today, the rhythms and flow of speech, the sense of humor. The Old Bailey Online project gives transcripts of trials from the period, so that too is very useful, but of course you wouldn’t expect people to speak in a court of law as they do among their peers. Jocasta has her own way of speaking, which is also influenced by the musicality of the accents and dialects of Cumbria where she originally comes from.
Q. You note at the end of the book that Anatomy of Murder takes place in the weeks after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, but before the news of the surrender reached London. Why did you set the book in this narrow twilight of war? Do you feel it’s important for readers to understand the story within this particular historical context?
Given that the book deals with treason, yes, I felt it was important to show something of the context, though you don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the conflicts of the late eighteenth century to understand it! Britain had certainly lost control of her American colonies before the action of the book begins but that said, the fact that the Royal Navy survived with its reputation intact was very important to the future flow of events in Europe. Remember, while the events in the book are unfolding, Napoleon is studying at a French military academy and it is during the war of American Independence that Nelson is earning his experience and reputation.
Q. You write in your blog [http://imogenrobertson.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/judgement/], “We all need editors, and the ideal editor is not your partner or best mate, but a professional who is willing to spend many hours thinking hard about your work.” What is your process with your editor like? Do you solicit input from other people as well?
I talk a lot about plot with my husband, Ned, to whom Anatomy of Murder is dedicated. I also get him to read odd scenes from time to time and often ask him to read the first few pages of a draft to get his reactions. He doesn’t read the full book until there are bound proofs though. While I am writing I need a sounding board and encouragement and I can rely on Ned for that, but there comes a point when you need a close critical reading and that’s when your editor is so important.
Flora Rees, my editor at Headline in the UK, gets my draft when I can’t see the wood for the trees anymore. She knows I respond well to praise, so often the first thing she does is ring me up and tell me she really likes it! After that she spends a few weeks going through the manuscript very carefully, then sends me her comments. At this point I’ll have had a break from the manuscript and be keen to get to work again. Some of Flora’s suggestions can be fundamental to the book and involve big changes. For instance, with Anatomy of Murder it was Flora who suggested an opening battle at sea to meet James Westerman. I can always agree or disagree, but nine times out of ten I’ll think she’s spot on. I love that scene now and it comes as quite a shock to think it wasn’t always there. Other of Flora’s comments can be on the level of a word or phrase. For instance, I remember in my first book I’d used the phrase “grim little smile” five times in the original manuscript and Flora very gently pointed that out so I could change them all. Sometimes it can be hard to see your own verbal ticks for yourself!
What’s great about Flora’s notes is that she doesn’t mind if she makes a suggestion and I go haring off in another direction entirely. Every relationship between editor and writer is unique, but mine with Flora feels very collaborative and supportive and that works brilliantly for me. Other than Flora and Ned though, I keep the book to myself until the review copies are ready.
Q. Who was your favorite character to write? Who would you most want to spend a day with and what would you hope to do together?
I loved writing Jocasta—she sees the world around her with a very clear eye and I think I could learn a great deal by watching her tell fortunes for her neighbors. That said, going to the opera with Manzerotti would be wonderful. I’d like to watch from the wings, then have him take me to supper afterward.
Q. Do you think Harriet behaved inappropriately at any point in the book? How much of smart, empathetic, independent Harriet do you see in yourself?
Harriet being involved in the investigation of a murder is in and of itself highly inappropriate for a woman of her class at the time. She can behave badly when she’s irritated with her sister, and sometimes her impulsiveness can lead her to do things she shouldn’t. Graves is right to give her a hard time for taking poor Susan to a madhouse, for instance.
I like to think on my good days I share something with Harriet! We are both interested in other people, their motivations and stories, and I certainly have an independent streak but Harriet is braver than I am and much better at going out into the world. Sometimes I think I’m more like Crowther. All writers have to have a touch of the hermit about them, and I do need to spend time alone with my work to be happy. Like him I can find too much socializing a strain, though I hope I’m never as rude as he is.
Q. You mention a cello teacher in one of your blog posts. How long have you played? How did your personal experience as a musician inform your writing about music in Anatomy of Murder?
I started playing the cello when I was eight years old. I was never a great or dedicated musician, but by playing I began to develop a love of orchestral and chamber music that has always stayed with me. After university I stopped playing for many years, then around 2001 I took it up again and had the good fortune to find a teacher, Gwyn Pritchard, who is not only a great teacher but also a composer and now a good friend. It was through his daughter, also a composer, that I met my husband and Gwyn read the blessing
at our wedding. It was also Gwyn who first mentioned the castrati singers to me and we often discuss eighteenth–century music, its development and performance, as well as how to write about music. I’m no expert, though. My husband, who plays jazz, knows a lot more about the structure of music than I do. I just try and play the notes in front of me with varying degrees of success!
Q. Do you find that you receive different responses to your novels from British versus American readers?
Yes, I think American readers are much better at e–mailing to say they enjoyed a book, which is something I really enjoy. It never occurred to me to write to authors before I became a writer myself. Now I realize just how much an e–mail from a stranger saying, “I liked your book, please write more,” can really brighten your day.
Q. Did you have a particular reader in mind (younger, older, urban, rural) while you wrote Anatomy of Murder? Who would you most love to catch reading your book on the tube in London?
I think you have to write for yourself first of all and after that finding anyone who reads your work is a pleasure! I’d like to believe that anyone could enjoy my work. That said, I would love to see a teenage girl reading my book on the tube because I remember really falling in love with books myself at that age—
Georgette Heyer, Conan Doyle, and all the detective novels of the Golden Age of crime writing. I love the idea of inspiring someone as I was inspired but I don’t write for a particular audience. I don’t think I’d know how.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSHave you read Instruments of Darkness, Robertson’s first Westerman and Crowther mystery? If yes, how did the first book enhance your reading of the second? If no, would you like to read it now?
How often did you find yourself consulting the map at the beginning of the book? Did it affect your reading experience in any particular way?
What clues did Westerman and Crowther find on Fitzraven’s body, and later in his house? How did the clues inform their investigation of his death?
What kinds of modern technology would have hastened Harriet and Crowther’s detective search? What would these technologies have revealed about Fitzraven’s demise?
What role does vanity play in the book? Which characters succumbed most to its pull, and how?
Why did Fitzraven, Manzerotti, and Lord Carmichael enter into the dark world of espionage? What motivated them to stay?
When asked about the presence of bribes in opera, Manzerotti explains to Westerman and Crowther, “The arts require the patronage of the rich and influential” (p. 166). How did this requirement shape the international espionage operations in London?
Who do you think was the most rebellious character in the book? Why?
In what ways was Harriet an early feminist? How does she defy the social norms and expectations of a woman of her age and rank?
Who did you suspect in the murder of Fitzraven and, later, in the other murders? Did you solve the mystery before Robertson revealed the truth? If so, when did you start to piece it all together, and what clues tipped you off?
What plot lines and secrets, if any, still felt unresolved to you at the close of the book? Can you see any spots where Robertson may be making room for her next Westerman and Crowther mystery, Island of Bones?