London, 1785. When the body of a former West Indies planter is found outside St Paul's Cathedral, suspicion abounds. But talk is not only of the man's death. His past brings a tide of fear directly to Harriet Westerman's door where William Geddings, senior footman, knows more than he is prepared to confess.
In search of answers, Harriet and her friend, anatomist Gabriel Crowther, reluctantly explore the dark and destructive world of Britain's slave trade. And as Harriet must confront an ugly truth close to home, London's hidden network of slave traders are forced to face the light. Francis Glass, a former slave, holds the key to their anonymity and no one can be sure what he plans to do with it.
When some people will risk everything for their reputation, some acts can never be forgiven.
Theft of Life
Shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger, 2014
Book five of the critically acclaimed
Crowther & Westerman series
Image: Textile design depicting the slave trade, designed by Frédéric Etienne Joseph Feldtrappe (1786–1849) after a painting by George Morland (British, London 1763–1804 London). Read more >
Reviewed by Publisher's Weekly
When I happen across a new author I enjoy, it’s not unusual for me to go looking for his or her backlist. This book sent me in search of the source material listed in the bibliography or acknowledgements, and that’s not usual at all.
Theft of Life is the fifth in Imogen Robertson’s series of 18th-century mysteries featuring forthright amateur sleuth Harriet Westerman and reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther, and if any of the others address a darker or more shameful facet of British history, I would be very surprised.
To any right-thinking 21st century person, the concept of slavery is anathema. To many in the late 18th century, it was part of everyday life, and few people above the poverty line failed to benefit from it in some way, either directly through the wealth it generated, or more obliquely by enjoying the sugar, cotton, tobacco and other products it made affordable.
It isn’t always a comfortable read (though don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort), and that is what sent me to the source material; I couldn’t quite believe the barbaric treatment of slaves which the author describes. Unfortunately, the evidence is plain; if anything things were even worse than her account. A Georgette Heyer view of history this book is most emphatically not. Imogen Robertson has an extraordinary talent for bringing her background to vibrant, sometimes appalling life. Here is 18th-century city life, from the gutter to the ducal mansion and many points between, full of telling detail and sensory evocation.
The plot is complex, and puts out tendrils as far afield as the West Indies; the solution, when it finally unravels, is simple and inevitable, but retains the element of surprise. The joy of the narrative lies in Harriet’s and Gabriel’s gradual unpicking of the various strands, crossing paths along the way with characters as vividly drawn as the setting, black, brown and white, some a little larger than life. Perhaps the non-white players are a little skewed towards goodness, but if Robertson feels she needs to make a point, it’s one which needs to be made.
The sum total is a rich, thought-provoking novel which is far more than a good mystery, though it’s definitely that. If it didn’t exactly leave me feeling proud to be British, it did make me glad I live more than two centuries later, when the world has moved on at least a little way. Imogen Robertson is a force to be reckoned with, and a name to watch. I’ll certainly be looking for her backlist.
What are people saying about Theft of Life?
Even the title serves as a vehicle for Robertson to remind readers that not only murder victims have their lives stolen, but so also did the slaves – and that their sense of degradation and humiliation at being just ‘property’ is something that can never be entirely erased.
Theft of Life is at times an uncomfortable piece, but compelling and necessary reading for those who wish to understand one of the great movements of our history – and be entertained by a cracking story as well."
Imogen Robertson has an amazing gift for convincingly recreating every side of eighteenth-century life. No Georgette Heyer world here. She summons up the smells, the tastes, the sights and daily life of London, from the ranks of high society to the poverty stricken and the viciousness of the underworld, reflecting their differing attitudes to the slave trade. This is a breathtaking novel led by a satisfying plot with two intriguing protagonists and set in a period so well described that the link with our own times is only too clear."
– Amy Myers,
Shots, crime and thrilller ezine
Robertson has written several sparkling novels set in the mid-Georgian era, but there is an extra depth in her new book as she tackles the subject of the slave trade and how much Georgian high society depended on its profits. Shocking but not didactic, the novel reminds us of a bleak part of our heritage while also providing two first-class and cleverly intertwined mystery plots.
– The Crime Writers Association
The electrifying new historical thriller featuring Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther."
– Fantastic Ficton
From the first Robertson's books have combined intricate plotting with vivid reconstruction of Georgian society. This one is no exception."
– The Sunday Times
"Gripping blend of the Georgian Gothic and the forensic thriller."
A note from the author
Theft of Life 1785
It was slowly dawning on me as I began to think of a subject for the fifth Crowther and Westerman novel that although I had been reading a great deal about the 18th century for some years, it was rare for the topic of slavery to occur other than in passing. The realisation came as a shock.
I started to look for books that dealt with the topic and the lives of the black population of the UK in the 18th century and quickly realised this was the book I had to write next. 1785 is all the year a young man called Thomas Clarkson published ‘An essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species’. This became a founding text of the abolition movement in the UK and though I wanted to mark that moment, I also didn’t want to make this novel his story. It had to be that of the Africans living in London who had faced the horrors of slavey themselves. So Francis Glass and Tobias Christopher began to take shape in my mind.
I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t make Crowther and Westerman into their saviours. They had the right to save themselves, but recruit Crowther and Westerman to help them. I did a lot of research and a lot of listening and I learned a great deal. There is so much more to be written about Black Georgians, their community and role in London society.
I also wanted to look again at some of children we first met in Instruments of Darkness and find out what sort of people they were becoming and consider how the traumas of their early years and strange upbringings might be affecting them.
Articles about Theft of Life
Here are a selection of articles, blogs, and resources about Theft of Life and taken from the news page.