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Island of Bones

A broken heritage, a secret history, a bitter death.

Book three of the critically acclaimed Crowther & Westerman series

Image: The Greta Bridge, by John Sell Cotman (1805), watercolour.


     Shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award 2011, the third novel in the critically acclaimed Westerman and Crowther historical mystery series reveals the dark secrets of Crowther’s past.

     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 labourers 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 instalment 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.

Reviewed by: The Independent

Lakes tale plunges to dark depths

     "When she is not penning her insidiously diverting historical crime novels, Imogen Robertson spends her time playing the cello music of Bach and Shostakovich – proof of her civilised nature.

But what makes such books as Island of Bones so unusual is their audacious mix of a cultural gloss and uncomplicated, straight-ahead storytelling. The multi-layered nuance of Peter Ackroyd and the buttonholing narrative grasp of Stephen King are stirred into the mix.

     Although such a combination shouldn't really work, Robertson makes the various elements coalesce to striking effect. Her latest novel has all the panache of its predecessors, Instruments of Darkness and Anatomy of Murder, with a particularly strong evocation of the Lake District. Of course, the Lakes in the 18th century was different from the region we know today.

     Island of Bones features Robertson's ill-matched protagonists, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. The former is a strong-willed Sussex landowner; Crowther is a severe anatomist who prefers his own company – but is prepared to help Harriet in her mystery-solving activities.

     The tomb of a nobleman, the First Earl of Greta, appears to have lain untouched (on the eponymous island) for hundreds of years, but when its stone lid is pried loose there is one body too many inside. Crowther's family now owns the land that belonged to the Earl, and Crowther sports a family history quite as chequered (and sanguinary). Crowther's brother, in fact, was executed for the murder of their father, the Baron of Keswick. Crowther and Westerman are soon in dark territory. Their journey into a mysterious ancient town – in search of the identity of the second skeleton – has its share of unsettling encounters, not with the supernatural "boggles" said to walk the streets, but a more corporeal menace. There is a personal significance for Crowther in their discoveries.

     A particular inspiration for Robertson has been the poet Thomas Gray who, for her, evoked the sinister beauty of the landscape in the 18th century – as well as virtually single-handedly creating the tourist industry. Both notions are creatively utilised in this splendid mystery. What's more, Robertson is to be commended for not having her Lake District-travelling characters encounter William Wordsworth, wandering lonely as a cloud.

Barry Forshaw


What are people saying about Island of Bones?

Imagine the love child of Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, throw in the fact that Robertson is also a poet and writes about the landscape of the Lakes with all the passion and acuity of vision of a true Romantic, and you will begin to form an impression of this novel. It is a delight on every level – witty, ingeniously plotted and full of atmosphere, with a cast of engaging characters who are far from the stereotypes of lesser crime fiction. The analytical Crowther and the more intuitive Mrs. Westerman make a formidable team whose history together through the earlier novels is made clear with a light touch that whets this reader’s appetite for more.

Highly recommended, especially if you’re having a staycation in the Lakes this summer. A clever, moving and thoroughly enjoyable read.

– Sarah Bower, Historical Novel Society

Crowther is an enjoyably oddball character, and Westerman is one of the most appealing female characters to ever appear in historical fiction. A lover of high-seas adventure, Westerman struggles to find a place for herself in a world that keeps telling her to stay home and be quiet like the rest of the ladies in petticoats and stays.

Though the two solve the case together, it's she who reminds the austere scientist that while facts are crucial, in mysteries, as in life, following your emotional intuition is what makes for the most accurate — and satisfying — conclusion.

—Nathalie Gorman,

In Robertson’s tale of gothic horror, witchcraft, and murder, the picaresque hills surrounding Keswick are full of bloody histories.

Robertson’s fabulous novel unfolds in tones as fresh and crisp as falling snow. Robertson portrays many of her characters in brushstrokes both deep and broad, as well as filling them with considerable fault in an attempt to refract real emotion. Perhaps the best in the series so far, there is subtle irony to Island of Bones as Crowther moves towards ameliorating the guilt that he probably allowed an innocent man to hang thirty years ago. Sensing how traditions and beliefs are dragged from one generation to the next, Robertson gorgeously layers Harriet and Gabriel's motivations with respect to the sensibilities, expectations, and moral strictures of the Victorian period.

– Curled up with a good book

Robertson's superior third historical featuring anatomist Gabriel Crowther and widow Harriet Westerman, makes the most of its revelations about Crowther's backstory. The powerful opening, set in 1751 London, shows Crowther on the eve of his brother Adair's execution for the stabbing murder of their father. After the hanging, the action flashes forward to 1783 Cumberland, where an extra corpse has been found in a tomb on the Penhaligon family estate. That discovery comes to the attention of Crowther, who, in the interim, has studied anatomy abroad and tried unsuccessfully to live out his days as a recluse. His investigation into the cadaver's provenance turns up a wealth of secrets that may shed new light on his family's dark history. First-rate prose and the deepening relationship between the two leads bode well for the longevity of this series.

– Publishers Weekly


A note from the author

Island of Bones 1783

I knew Crowther had a traumatic incident in his past and had sketched out what it might be in Instruments, but now was the time for the past would catch-up with him. At the same time I began to find out more about the use of magic in the early  modern period, folk-beliefs and cunning men. 1783 was also a year when the Laki earthquake created very strange atmospheric conditions across Europe. Perfect. So those elements converged to take Crowther back to his old family home in the Lake District accompanied by Harriet to confront the ghosts of his past and present devilry.


Articles about Island of Bones

Here are a selection of articles, blogs, and resources about Island of Bones and taken from the news page.


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