This is the fourth in a series of detective stories set in the late eighteenth century featuring Mrs Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. While it is possible to read it as a stand alone novel, you will have a much fuller experience if you read the others (Instruments of Darkness, Anatomy of Murder and Island of Bones) first. There are allusions to what has happened before in this book, but a back story is not provided and so the finer points of some of the relationships are not immediately clear.
Harriet Westerman is a youngish, well to do widow with two small children. In the past she has, in company with Gabriel Crowther, a wealthy recluse whose hobby is the study of anatomy, solved a couple of major crimes. Her sister, Rachel, now recently married and on her wedding tour, has disapproved of her involvement, deeming it unfeminine. At this point, do not start thinking that Mrs Westerman is a feisty 21st Century feminist plonked down in the 18th Century. She is not. One of Imogen Robertson's great achievements is that she has recreated the 18th Century world view very accurately.
At the start of the book there is a short prologue depicting a seance. Remember what happens because it is important. Then we skip forward two years and find Mr Clode an apparent murderer and attempted suicide being interrogated by an official of a middle European dukedom. Mr Clode is Mrs Westerman's brother-in-law, visiting Maulberg as part of his wedding tour and partly to check on the huge financial interests held there by his employer, the infant Earl of Sussex. Mrs Westerman receives a letter from her sister begging for help. So, she, Mr Crowther and the Earl of Sussex's guardian, Mr Graves, set off to help her, taking Michaels from the village to act as interpreter, guide and general enabler.
One of the things I like about this book is its realism and attention to historical detail, so it takes nearly two months to get there. Luckily, because of the Earl of Sussex's financial investment in the dukedom, Mr Clode is still alive while the case is being investigated with great thoroughness, to avoid any diplomatic difficulties. Mrs Westerman and her friends are given a respectful welcome and allowed to review the facts of the case.
Meanwhile we become aware of some of the intrigues in court life in Maulberg. There is evidence of the activities of the Free Masons and similar secret societies who may or may not be plotting against the state. Someone is looking into their activities, but it is not clear who. Then someone else is murdered and it becomes obvious that something very grim is going on.
There are clues throughout to possible solutions and we see them at the same time as Mrs Westerman and Mr Crowther, so, in theory, we could work it out for ourselves . . . . but . . . it is like a cryptic crossword, when you know the solution you can work it out backwards. It had crossed my mind who the villain was, but I couldn't work out why, so I thought it was a red herring thrown in to mislead.
This book works well on so many levels. It is a good story, a fine thriller, an excellent historical novel and an intriguing episode in an ongoing series.
If you haven't read the earlier books in the series, you have a huge treat waiting for you.