Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther make an unlikely pair: a wealthy navy widow and a reclusive anatomist brought together by their shared curiosity for the darker side of human nature and their pressing need to pursue the truth. Having built a loyal friendship during their adventures in Instruments of Darkness and Anatomy of Murder, Westerman and Crowther return for their third mystery in Imogen Robertson’s thrilling Island of Bones. Robertson’s latest novel showcases her skillful storytelling and mastery of suspense, but also reveals the intimate emotions of the misanthropic Crowther, laying bare his family history and the scandal that drove him into seclusion.
The year is 1783 and a medieval crypt has been opened on St. Herbert’s Island, part of the Crowther family’s former estate, revealing an extra body inside. Intrigued, Crowther’s estranged sister invites him and Mrs. Westerman to discover the identity of the anonymous corpse. Disdained by the gentry but fascinating to the local folks, social misfits Crowther and Mrs. Westerman arrive in the Cumberland town of Keswick ready to untangle the mystery. As they begin their investigation, they quickly realize that the body is only the beginning of a vast plot involving blackmail, arson, murder, the disappearance of a relic that is thought to be enchanted, and decades–old political rebellions. Intricately woven into all of this is Crowther’s own life story and the secrets he kept even from Mrs. Westerman. Forced to confront the family history he has hidden away for so long, Crowther learns that his family secrets are even darker than he realized.
Robertson expertly blends suspense and wit, and the verbal volleying between Crowther and Mrs. Westerman is a pleasure to read. The fiery and independent Mrs. Westerman is the perfect foil for the aloof Crowther, and his critical eye and patient scientific approach keep her impulsiveness in check. Yet they demonstrate a keen sympathy for each other’s pain; Crowther’s past threatens to dismantle his cool demeanor, while Mrs. Westerman wrestles with the grief and her sense of guilt over the death of her husband. Robertson writes their casual banter and their deeper struggles with equal aplomb.
Once again, Robertson has delivered a novel filled with suspense and forensic detail that is also a brilliant evocation of a distant time and place. Eighteenth–century Keswick and its surrounding countryside are filled with local superstitions, the ancient lore of cunning men and witches, and a community much more complex than it first appears. Robertson’s fans will be delighted to follow Mrs. Westerman and Gabriel Crowther through this richly detailed, gripping mystery, while readers new to Robertson’s talents may find themselves rushing to read her earlier works as well. A classic page–turner, Island of Bonesis impossible to put down and filled with surprises right to the very end.
Imogen Robertson worked as a television, film, and radio director before becoming a full–time writer. She is the author of four Westerman/Crowther novels: Instruments of Darkness; Anatomy of Murder; Island of Bones, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Award; and Circle of Shadows, forthcoming from Pamela Dorman Books. In 2012, Robertson was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in the Library. She lives in London.
Q. Island of Bones is your third novel with Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. How have the characters changed over the years?
They have certainly been changed by their experiences. Harriet has lost her husband and her investigations with Crowther threaten to isolate her from society. She is both grieving deeply and profoundly restless at the beginning of Island of Bones. I think Crowther’s friendship with Harriet and her family is making him stronger, but more vulnerable after his years of isolation and self–sufficiency. I do not think he would have agreed to return to his father’s old lands if they had not become allies, but he still resists facing the demons of his past and the profound questions these mysteries raise.
Q. At the end of the novel, you provide the titles of works you found useful when writing, such as Keswick: The Story of a Lake District Town and the letters of Horace Walpole, but how did the story originate? How much of the plot was decided before you began to write?
I knew I wanted to investigate Crowther’s past, and I knew where he was born. I began to look at the history of the area throughout the eighteenth century and realized that there was something I could use in the story of James Radclyffe, earl of Derwentwater, and his part in the Jacobite rebellions. As I research, I begin to plot and think of the cast of characters I will be using. As the plot and these characters develop, my research is pushed into more specific areas and that research in turn suggests new elements in the plot. I like to think I have my plot pretty well laid out before I begin to write, but as I write it changes and develops as the characters develop their voices and histories on the page. It’s an organic process.
Q. Part I of the novel begins with a quote from Paracelsus: “Knowledge is experience.” What knowledge have you gained through your experience writing and publishing the Westerman/Crowther novels? How does the daily reality of being a professional writer compare to the fantasy that most readers have?
All sorts of things. As far as the writing goes I’ve learned that each novel is very different and has its own challenges. It doesn’t get any easier I’m afraid, though on the other hand you begin to realize that if you work hard enough a solution will present itself. During every book there is a period where it seems an impossible task. The trick is to remember that this feeling is a necessary part of the process and from doubt and confusion the novel develops and gets stronger. I knew very little about publishing when I got my first book deal. I had read a lot about writing and thought I was reasonably well informed—I even had some work experience in publishing from my time at university—but in the end I had no idea of the size of the operation needed to get a book made, bound, and into the shop.
As far as the daily life of a writer is concerned, people seem to think I’m either very rich or very poor and I’m neither. The stereotypes of writers seem to be either one or the other, but there are plenty of us somewhere in the middle. I suspect I also thought that once you had a book published you never worried about anything ever again and just wandered about in a state of permanent bliss. Unfortunately we all find plenty of things to still worry about: Is this book any good? Will enough people buy it? Do my publishers feel I’m still a good investment in these troubled times? Can I have a poster? Why does that reviewer on Amazon hate me? How can I describe this landscape without being cliché? Funnily enough the only thing I never worry about is ideas. The world is full of inspirations and fragments I’d love to use in novels and stories. The difficult thing is picking out the best ones.
Q. You have a blog (imogenrobertson.wordpress.com) to communicate with your readers and of course they also interact with you at readings, conferences, and through other means. What are some of the most frequent comments you receive about Mrs. Westerman and Crowther?
Half the people I meet passionately want me to confirm there will be some romantic relationship developing between Westerman and Crowther. Half really, really want me to promise I’ll never allow such a thing to happen. I irritate them all by refusing to say anything either way.
Q. English literature is dotted with doctors, alchemists, and other men of science who are depicted as evil, mad, or in some way disturbing. What is it about this field of study that readers find so unsettling?
Society does not like to be challenged and that is just what these people are doing. They challenge the accepted wisdom of their times, or the agreed way of doing things and so society fears and attacks them. On the other hand, years of obsessive study can drive anyone mad; think how you would fight to hang onto a belief or a theory you’ve invested your life in. Sometimes it is luck as much as judgment that divides the honored scientist from the madman in the cellar. Also there is the fear that knowledge can give you power over men or nature, or that the quest for that knowledge is meddling with dangerous powers we do not understand and have no business inquiring into. Remember all the stories about black holes being created by the Large Hadron Collider!
Q. Mrs. Westerman is a unique female character, not least because of her attitude toward motherhood. She genuinely cares for her children, and yet she leaves her toddler daughter for weeks in order to pursue a mystery and at one point in the novel is chastised for not paying enough attention to her son’s whereabouts and activities. How would you describe her as a mother?
She is conflicted as a mother, there’s no doubt about that. As much as she loves Stephen and Anne she finds domesticity a terrible constraint and obviously dislikes the assumption by society that her concerns should all be in the home. Many women of her class and time would leave the care and education of their children to their servants, so we should be careful not to judge her purely on that, but even those women who saw very little of their children would not expect to have an active life outside the home other than social occasions and “good works.” Harriet is also painfully aware of the different expectations her children have. Her son has a chance to go out into the world but her daughter’s fate will depend to a great extent on who she marries. That troubles Harriet and her usual reaction to being troubled is to act impulsively and throw herself into action rather than reflection.
Q. Crowther is dismissive of any behavior he sees as irrational or guided by impulse or emotion. For example, he rejects the Keswick belief in boggles and spirits. Do you have any superstitious beliefs that Crowther would frown upon?
Oh, yes! Magpies, touching wood, seeing the new moon through glass, and black cats. I would also go a long way out of my way to avoid a boggle. Sometimes I feel Crowther over my shoulder shaking his head at me in a despairing manner.
Q. Continuing with that idea, one would expect that Crowther would have no patience for the folk–healing practices of Casper Grace, yet he treats him with respect and chooses his services over that of the local doctor. Why?
He may not believe in boggles and witches, but Crowther is a great believer in empirical evidence. He knows that a successful healer will understand a great deal about the properties of medicinal herbs and how to use them. He also knows Casper has years of practical experience. He thinks this far more valuable than listening to lectures based on texts unchallenged for hundreds of years. Crowther sees the local doctors as hacks who do nothing but bleed their patients and collect their fees but have neither Casper’s knowledge nor practical skills. He would never, however, let Casper tell his fortune or suggest lucky days in the calendar for him.
Q. Much like Chekhov’s famous statement about a gun introduced in the first act needing to be fired in the second, the suspense novelist must place clues throughout the book so that the final reveal doesn’t seem implausible. Is there a specific structure that must be observed? What makes for a good mystery?
I wish we knew for sure! For the Crowther and Westerman mysteries I follow the traditional structure of a crime novel, i.e. there is a body in the first act and the drive of the novel is: why is this person dead and who killed him (or her)? It is also the story of the investigation itself. That’s as much structure as you get really, so there is room for infinite variation, which is why we are still writing crime novels. What else? I think you are making a deal with the reader when the book opens that you will resolve these stories of the crime and the investigation. Some ambiguity, some doubt is fine and can make for a richer book, but you can’t leave plot hanging in the air. You are also promising that the solution will make sense, so you need to show the path to the conclusion and make sure your characters’ motivations are convincing. For me, the “why” is always more interesting than the “who” or the “how,” so for me what makes a good mystery is good characters rather than red herrings or locked rooms.
Q. You’ve created an interesting framework for the novel, dividing the story into five parts and prefacing each part (with the exception of the first) with a piece of correspondence from the collection of Mr. Askew’s Keswick Museum. Why did you structure the book in this way?
I wanted to give the readers a moment to breathe between the parts of the book and to give them a fresh view of Crowther’s family, home, and history in another voice. These interstitials are a chance to sketch in some of what lies behind events in the novel in a way that would be cumbersome with dialogue between characters.
Q. What’s next for Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther?
In Circle of Shadows, the fourth book of the series, Harriet’s new brother–in–law, Daniel Clode, is discovered after Carnival with the body of a young woman beside him and his wrists cut. He has no memory of what has happened and Harriet and Crowther must travel across Europe to the Holy Roman Empire to a court rich in ceremony and intrigue to save him from the executioner’s ax.