Sunday 24 July 2011

Imogen Robertson: Anatomy of Murder (2010)

Having enjoyed Robertson's first novel, Instruments of Darkness, I had high hopes for the sequel. These were, for the most part, realised. Her two detectives, naval wife Hannah Westerman and anatomist Gabriel Crowther, have become somewhat notorious as a result of the publication of lurid pamphlets describing the events of the first novel.

This means that towards the end of 1781 they are asked to look into a body found in the river Thames, a body of interest because it had been tied town to keep it from being found - a subterfuge which failed because the killer didn't take into account the action of the tide. The dead man turns out to be a former musician from the opera house, bringing the world of eighteenth century music which featured in Instruments of Darkness into this novel as well - perhaps an unlikely coincidence, but clearly allowing Robertson to write about a world with which she is familiar and comfortable: the case involves castrati, a French soprano in fact born in the London slums, and the relationship between the opera and high society. A suspicion of espionage - the novel is set during the American War of Independence after all - provides the driving force behind the crime and its aftermath, though this is never really very convincing. The mystery itself is not particularly taxing to unravel for the reader, but the story does manage to hold the interest nonetheless.

Anatomy of Murder is a lighter read than Instruments of Darkness, lacking much of the Gothic atmosphere of the earlier novel, despite the introduction of a Tarot-card reading fortune teller. The world of the opera in London is a brighter, more passionate one than the decaying manor in the depths of rural Sussex which formed the background of Instruments of Darkness. Though squalor and deprivation are depicted, London is never made as sinister as the countryside. Moving the setting to London allows Robertson to show her extensive background knowledge of a different aspect of eighteenth century England.

The misanthropy of Gabriel's character has been softened somewhat, too, though the lack of romantic tension between Gabriel and Hannah remains a strength: the avoidance of the crime genre cliché of the detectives who start to fall for each other because of working together marks out Imogen Robertson's work as refreshingly different from the norm. After all, people often work together in the real world without developing a romantic attachment.

Sometimes sequels can be read on their own without spoiling the first book too much, but Anatomy of Murder is not really one of these. It gives away a great deal which the first time reader of Instruments of Darkness would probably prefer to first encounter in its proper place. There is of course no reason why sequels need to be stand alone; but it is a warning that the earlier story should definitely be read first.

Even though less good than its prequel, Anatomy of Murder is still an atmospheric piece of historical crime fiction, with central characters who are consistently interesting - if not entirely likeable. It could do with a better and more convincing mystery, though, which is why I rate it only at 6/10.

Edition: Headline, 2010
Review number: 1428

Thursday 7 July 2011

John Meaney: Bone Song (2007)

Back in February, I reviewed Absorption by John Meaney, wondering why the author of that somewhat tedious novel was described by Stephen Baxter as having "rewired SF". Bone Song, Meaney's début, is why.

While not as revolutionary as Baxter's praise suggests, Bone Song starts in a marvellously atmospheric and imaginative manner, evocatively written with a compelling central character. The setting is Tristopolis, not just the "city of sadness" its name suggests but somewhere where death is all important; ghosts and zombies are among the citizens, and wraiths power many machines, while a mystical process applied to bones provides the fuel in the city's power stations. Donal Riordan is a policeman in Tristopolis, assigned to protect a visiting opera singer: she is the next potential victim of a killer who is murdering creative people because their bones can be used to experience a "high".

The excellence of the first hundred pages is not maintained. Much of the middle of Bone Song seems to this reader to consist of dull running around by Riordan and his colleagues, provoking a tedium which perhaps makes it more true to life than many police procedurals. The interest does pick up again towards the end, and, while it never shows sufficient originality to justify Baxter's praise, Bone Song remains an intriguing novel.

In a further bout of hype, the back cover also describes Bone Song as "an extraordinary melding of visionary SF and dark horror". This might have been more convincing if China Miéville and Neil Gaiman (to pick two writers who came to mind while reading this story) had never published their fiction. While the background is more like Miéville, there is a stylistic influence from comic books which suggests Gaiman. There is even a paragraph where Meaney uses a common comic book technique where dialogue is interrupted by action but then continues as though nothing had happened: along the lines of three frames containing "Stop..." | THUD | "...that" as text.

As for a rating: I'd give the first and last thirds 9/10, and the middle 3/10, which averages to 7/10 overall.

Edition: Gollancz, 2008
Review number: 1427