This is my review of Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson.
The pace and confident development of the plot in short scenes alternating between the two main locations of London and the countryside suggest the author's familiarity with working on film and radio scripts. I was encouraged to obtain this book by a positive review in "The Guardian", but very soon became uneasy – this seemed a reworking of the murder mystery in an aristocratic household which I have met so many times in a long reading life. Was it really worth reading? The prose seemed to attempt a vaguely Austenish style in keeping with the late C18 setting at the time of the American War of Independence (although the story is set largely in England) but too often the attitudes and speech of the characters and the narrator jarred in sounding too modern. The prose was by turns leaden or purple when it attempted high drama and deeper emotion, and generally clunky, in need of a good edit. The characters were somewhat two dimensional – either cringe-makingly good and noble on one hand, or too obviously branded with a villainous "v" for viper. The key points of the plot were, contrary to the cover blurb, all too predictable, and the climax of the book, again unsurprisingly, over-melodramatic. Romantic relationships and those involving children were saccharine and sentimental. All this was quite frustrating because the story had the potential to succeed as more than a Mills and Boon pot boiler.
I quite liked the rare touches of realism- as when the "good guys" casually sacrificed a dog to test a drink for suspected arsenic, an action which has clearly shocked the sensitivities of some modern readers. Similarly, in the C18 world people could kill others in self defence and then dispose of the bodies in the interests of anatomical studies without involving the police! Some of the best writing was of the horror of the battle scenes. I also thought the epilogue was effective in striking a poignant note, reminding us of how a character who has hovered on the cusp between good and evil thinks he has achieved salvation through the love of a good woman, only to be sucked down by the inevitable reappearance of a blackmailer.