England, 1783. For years, reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther has pursued his forensic studies—and the occasional murder investigation—far from his family estate. But an ancient tomb there will reveal a wealth of secrets. When laborers discover an extra body inside the tomb, the lure of the mystery brings Crowther home at last, accompanied by his partner in crime, the forthright Mrs. Harriet Westerman. What Crowther learns will rewrite his family’s past—and spill new blood in a land torn between old magic and modern justice.
The next installment in a series described as “CSI: Georgian England” (The New York Times Book Review), Island of Bones is a riveting tale that will captivate fans of Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Finch.
About the Author
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Instruments of Darkness:
“A sensitive melodrama. . . . Robertson’s enjoyment of the period and her characters is infectious.”
—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“A thoroughly engaging novel, with rich prose and an intricate, suspenseful plot, with melodramatic, Gothic touches in perfect keeping with the historical period. Robertson has already written another Westerman/Crowther mystery. . . . let us hope for many more.”
“Every so often I encounter a book that makes me think with envy: ‘How I wish I could have written this story!’ Instruments of Darkness is just that book—poetic, enchanting, and chillingly memorable. Imogen Robertson is an exquisite writer, and this is an extraordinary novel.”
—Tess Gerritsen, author of The Silent Girl
“Mayhem runs amok in this period thriller. [Robertson] pulls out all the stops. . . a roaring soap opera of a novel.”
—The Washington Times
“Impressive . . . A ripping homage to Dickens, Austen and Conan Doyle, Instruments of Darkness will keep you up at night, and then, like me, waiting for the sequel.”
“The book works splendidly as a period thriller, with complicated leads and informative details that illuminate 18th-century England for modern readers.”
“This debut is getting some play and should well serve lovers of historical suspense.”
Reading Group Guide
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.
ABOUT IMOGEN ROBERTSON
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.
A CONVERSATION WITH IMOGEN ROBERTSON
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Beginning with a vivid account of the public hanging of Crowther’s brother, Robertson again releases an intriguing novel of suspense and mystery, featuring his beloved colorful characters, the spunky widow Mrs. Harriet Westerman and her dear friend, the reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther. Set in England in the eighteenth century, an ancient tomb is opened to reveal an extra body. Renowned for his expertise and experience with death, Crowther and his adventurous companion Mrs. Harriet Westerman are summoned back to Crowther’s family estate. As Harriet and Gabriel struggle to discover the identity of the corpse and his murderer from the past, the present provides new challenges, more murders, and a mysterious missing treasure, the Luck of Gutherscale Hall. Robertson, describes the picturesque town of Keswick and it’s cast of unique characters, from Casper Grace the “cunning-man,” Mr. Askew, the museum’s curator and somewhat historian of Keswick, the Vizegraifin and her son Felix, and Harriet’s own son Stephen, in rich and vibrant in detail that will please fans of historical fiction, but also those who favor mystery and murder. With references to pagan ideology, politics, greed, and relationships, throughout the story, Robertson touches on qualities of human nature and finally reveals the details of Crowther’s haunted past. Composed of multiple storylines and with references to Westerman and Crowther’s past cases running simultaneously together, Robertson, complemented by his entourage of characters is able to weave a complex and fantastic story with immense skill, that readers new to Robertson will not be lost and followers of Westerman and Crowther can embrace their favorite characters again in Island of Bones.
Island of Bones is an historical mystery set in eighteenth century Keswick. I am left in no doubt of this. The novel evokes the raw beauty of the Lake District and gives me enough historical snippets and insights to keep me securely within the period.I first meet Crowther at the execution of his elder brother and the Prologue hooks me in. Unfortunately, skipping forward 32 years to the novel 'proper', it all becomes a little tedious and I put the book down for a while.There is nothing wrong with the plot and it reaches a satisfying conclusion, but it takes me too long to get to it. This novel is not, for me, a 'page turner'. There are a lot of characters, planting false trails along the way. I think perhaps too many for, whilst I did not solve the mystery before it's climax, things did tend to get a little too confusing.The protagonists, Crowther and Westerman, are quite successful as a mismatched pair but the nature of their relationship remains a mystery to me. By the end of the novel they have not compelled me to read the first two books in this series. I am more aware of the relationship between Westerman's son, Stephen, and his tutor which is painted with subtle impact. They are a pleasant inclusion in the drama that unfolds.I understand Westerman, her character is well rounded, possibly because she interacts more with the supporting characters than Crowther does. Crowther himself upsets me in the opening pages by acting like a much younger man, flouncing into Westerman's salon, and from then on I find myself out of sorts with any further character building on his part.Casper is by far my favourite character and I would like to learn more about him, and Agnes who I feel is a little too shadowy. Personally, I would like hear more of the ancient ways sitting alongside modern ideas in terms of both faith and science. I like Crowther a little more for his respect of Casper.As I say, the novel reaches a satisfactory conclusion for me but, as I set it aside, I doubt I shall return to the Crowther and Westerman series. It has been the Lake District and its local characters that has kept me reading, not the protagonists.
The Book Report: Mrs. Harriet Westerman, Royal Navy wife, and Mr. Gabriel Crowther, anatomist and aristocrat manqué (albeit with a very good reason to have missed the mark), are back in these two volumes, succeeding "INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS". Mrs. Westerman is, in "Anatomy," in London because her husband has suffered a grievous injury in the process of taking a very rich prize ship (an eighteenth-century Royal Navy captain made his own and his crew's fortune by capturing enemy ships, not sinking them). Mrs. Westerman has confined him to a hospital to recover, but her friend and neighbor Crowther has followed her to Town, ensuring she will not be bored. In fact, Crowther and Westerman find themselves looking into a series of ever-more-suspicious deaths, embroiling themselves and the families of Westerman and Thornleigh (County neighbors also in London while Thornleigh Hall is restored to its former magnificence after being burned down in the fist book) in the terrifying toils of a spy conspiracy taking place during the closing days of America's war for independence.While there can never be a doubt that Crowther and Westerman will prevail, the cost to them both is always a source of suspense. Mrs. Westerman, a respectable Captain's wife, yet again charges around acting MOST unfeminine and brash, asking questions that powerful people do not want answered and demanding that everyone around her allow her to be herself (horrors!) and follow her own path (gadzooks!). Her proper, missish younger sister informs Mrs. Westerman in no uncertain terms of her behavior's cost to all her family. Crowther is drawn back into the world of aristos and wastrels he left behind without a shred of regret many years before. And, to make matters worse, while he is working out the solution to the dangerous puzzle at hand, he is required to dig up the ghosts of his murdered father and executed brother. All is resolved in the end, of course, but the personal lives of the sleuths are altered in some very significant ways. The stakes rise....And in "Island," the newly upped ante is raised still further! Now Crowther and Westerman are summoned to Crowther's childhood home in the Lake District by none other than Crowther's unpleasant, spoiled, snobbish sister, unseen by the man for more than thirty years. (Thank GOODNESS, one can hear Crowther--and the author--thinking.) Her brat son is involved in some sort of scrape; bones are discovered in the family's old home that should most definitely not be there; and here Mrs. Westerman is, assisting with the anatomization of several of the corpses that pile up wherever the pair appear. Crowther has reason to suspect his nephew of murder, not a great stretch as the said nephew reminds him of his executed murderer brother; Mrs. Westerman's son Stephen, brought to the Lake District for enlightenment and education, is embroiled in the dangerous business of ferreting out truths that the great and the good do not wish to see out; and all concerned are, of course, inalterably changed by their researches and investigations. At the end of this book, the entire series dramatis personae are assembled...it is a very moving finale. What Robertson plans for the enxt installment in the series, I cannot imagine. It will need to be a doozy to top this one. My Review: I don't have a lot to say about the books, except I think any mystery lover who is also a history buff will enjoy the series. I very much enjoy the books myownself. I suspect that the author's somewhat stately choice of style, no contractions, no anachronisms, could pall on some readers. For me, it was a genuine pleasure. I like these books, and find them quite involving and well-made in novel terms. As mysteries, they are quite good enough...but not first-rank puzzlers. It's not why I am reading them, so I'm not disappointed. More of the Christie style, where the journey is the point, than the Sayers tradition, where the puzzle is very tightly craf
An exciting read with interesting historical detail. The author does a great job developing her characters. Excellent book.
My choice for our book club
Outstanding detective team with interesting story line. I have read mystery books for years and this is a series I quickly followed after my first book !
Loved, loved, loved this book!