BOOK REVIEW: ‘Instruments of Darkness’

INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS
By Imogen Robertson
Viking, $26.95, 384 pages

ON BORROWED TIME
By David Rosenfelt
Minotaur, $24.99, 304 pages

Mayhem runs amok in this period thriller, in which the wicked world of the English 18th-century aristocracy is chronicled with nary a brutality left to the imagination.

Imogen Robertson takes an uninhibited approach to the telling of this saga, with its complicated cast of characters, and turns it into a historical horror story. Beyond the mannered behavior and sweeping skirts bubbles more trouble than could be imagined in the stately setting of Thornleigh Hall, the home of the Earl of Sussex.

The book opens with a description of the gentle breezes that waft through the trees on a June morning and tug at the coat of Gabriel Crowther, who has been roused reluctantly from his bed to take a look at a corpse discovered near a “meadow glowing with tall buttercups and purple knapwood.”

The unusual wake-up call came from Mrs. Harriet Westerman, Crowther’s charming neighbor, and just as he reflects that this was a pleasant place to stroll on a summer’s day, she points out the flies swarming over the body with its throat cut that lies on the path leading to Thornleigh.

And that is only the beginning of the slaughter. Beyond the murder in the meadow lie the darkest of family secrets, which explode into a succession of deaths and an ever rising threat of danger to those most vulnerable. There is the scene in which children see their father knifed to death and are bequeathed a black box that contains information that is worth killing for. There is the scene of the loyal servant cruelly hanged in her cottage because of what she knew. There is the earl lying crippled and undergoing torture in his bed at affluent and hideous Thornleigh Hall.

There is the alcoholic second son, who lives in terror that the true heir to the estate will return from the past. And there is the current Lady Thornleigh, gorgeous in her gilded setting with “a sensuality that flowed from her that overpowered even the stench of gold.”

A dancer and a streetwalker, she has become Lady Thornleigh almost as a gesture of social defiance on the part of Lord Thornleigh, and now she is in command of his house while he lives a miserable, crippled life. His first wife died mysteriously (of course) shortly after the murder of their young daughter. As I said, the slaughter goes on and on.

In the wake of the discovery of the body in the meadow, and suspicions that lead straight to Thornleigh Hall, the unlikely partnership of Mrs. Westerman and Crowther is forged. Crowther is a man who chooses to live in seclusion because of his own unhappy past (his brother was hanged) and Mrs. Westerman is the intelligent and somewhat bored wife of a naval commander who is frequently away from home on long voyages.

She is a woman well ahead of her time in independence and candor, and although there is no hint of romance, she and Crowther are well-matched as an investigative team.

Ms. Robertson pauses along her blood-spattered way to describe in brutal detail the anti-Catholic riots raging in London in the midst of the murders.

The Thornleigh crimes and scandal reach a climax that matches the melodrama preceding the events. The resolution of the book is hardly surprising because it is obvious who the monster in the manor is and the only question is how far she will go. But the author pulls out all the stops, and to her credit, she ties the nightmare fandango into a neat package and lets the good guys win. The reader may be confused occasionally, but nobody will be bored with this roaring soap opera of a novel.

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David Rosenfelt’s “On Borrowed Time” is a roller-coaster thriller that kicks off with a mysterious disappearance and its terrifying impact on the life of journalist Richard Kilmer.

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