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Two Mysteries Set in 1700s

I generally like historical fiction, and specifically, mysteries set during an age when England was flexing its merchant muscle and coming to terms with such issues as making it illegal to import slaves.  In the Colonies the French and Indian War was setting the stage for revolution ten or fifteen years later.

The two books I’ve read over the past two or three weeks are “The Hidden Man” by Robin Blake and “The Constable’s Tale” by Donald Smith.  Smith’s book is due to be published Sept. 15, but can be ordered now through Amazon.  Blake’s book came out last March.

The Hidden Man” is set in Preston, Lancashire, England in 1742.  The protagonist is the town coroner who is charged with investigating suspicious deaths and holding inquests to determine cause of death.  The Coroner, Titus Cragg, has a partner in his investigations, Dr. Luke Fidelis, who ministers among both the aristocratic folk and the poor within the region.  They are constantly at odds with the local magistrate in trying to determine who murdered a local goldsmith and pawnbroker, Mr. Pimbo and left him in an office locked from the inside.  When it becomes difficult to explain how the murderer got out the Dr. makes the supposition that the killer escaped when the room was opened and a number of curious onlookers rushed in to see what was going on.  It seems far-fetched by both Cragg and the magistrate, but will Fidelis be proven correct?  It appears that Pimbo had invested in a shipping venture to buy slaves off the coast of Africa, take them to Barbados, and trade them for rum and other goods to be sold in the Colonies.  The venture was being investigated by a marine insurance agency because a claim had been made that the ship had been lost a sea. The insurance company investigator has a young black servant with him who turns out to be a young woman.

The Hidden Man” plot is fairly convoluted and there are multiple suspects for two separate murders that take place, including the young black woman.  There are so many details and characters it is easy to get lost and also easy to get impatient with the many blind alleys this story goes down before the mystery is resolved.  It brings up some major social issues, such as the slave trade, but then the discussion is dropped and never goes anywhere.

If I had only time to read one of the two books set in this time period, it would be Donald Smith’s “Constable’s Tale.”  The protagonist in this tale is also a lawman, the constable of Craven County, North Carolina, Harry Woodyard.  A family friend, Comet Elijah, an elderly American Indian wiseman, is accused of savagely killing a farm family on the edge of New Bern, North Carolina, and Harry is obliged to take him into custody.  He can’t believe his friend, Elijah, could kill a family in cold blood, and he finds a Masonic emblem pin at the crime scene that might indicate someone else visited the farm family and could have been responsible.  Harry goes on a lengthy quest to find the owner of the pin.  His travels take him to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia and points north into Canada, where Harry gets mixed up with the seige on Quebec, British and French double-agent, and several encounters with an old flame. The ending was a surprise I did not see coming.

The Constable’s Tale” as an exciting read from start to finish and I had a hard time putting it down until I was finished.  It is supenseful and provides insight into a violent and formative time in American history.  “The Constable’s Tale” is highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

(“The Constable’s Tale” was reviewed from a provided copy.

 

 

 

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