- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011

By Imogen Robertson
Viking, $26.95, 384 pages

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.

Just as he is about to get married, Jennifer the bride vanishes, and nobody can remember even meeting her. Including her parents. Kilmer hurls himself into an investigation. But hovering in the background is a sinister character called Stone, one of the masterminds of a plot so involved, it covers biophysics, neuroscience and psychology.

If that isn’t enough, enter the lovely Allie, who is the twin sister of the missing Jennifer and just wants to help Richard. Or does she?

Mr. Rosenfelt moves his plot at a frenzied clip and strives to explain the intricacies of what is going on for those readers still trying to figure out the tangle. He does, too, as you always knew he would.

It seems unfortunate that, at least for the time being, the author seems to have given up on his dog mysteries, the kind that have the face of a golden retriever on the cover and inside a sardonic young lawyer battling for the legal rights of the dog. What those had going for them was that they were different, and they were fun. Even if you weren’t enamored of four-legged characters, the dog was always an important part of the story, and not just because it was a dog.

Mr. Rosenfelt has a well-developed sense of the ridiculous that made itself felt in his earlier books. That is missing in his latest novel, and that is unfortunate. You can always find a tough, lively thriller, which this is. But it is much more difficult to find a mystery in which a dog is not only involved in crime but has to be rescued in court. To be candid, Mr. Rosenfelt seems more comfortable with canine capers than with this heavy-duty kind of suspense.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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