I was going to say that I don’t quite remember when I read my first Cragg and Fidelis mystery… But of course, thanks to the archives of the Historical Novel Society I can tell precisely: it happened when I reviewed the fourth installment, Skin and Bones, back in 2016.
It happens often enough to start a series by reviewing a book that is not the first. Sometimes it is a little (or a lot) uncomfortable to plunge in the middle of things, with not background and a lot of things taken for granted; sometimes it’s not. With Robin Blake’s book it was no trouble at all: the characters and setting are so well rounded, the story so interesting, the whole so engaging that I fell in love within two pages, devoured the thing, wrote a glowing review, and set out to read the rest of the series from the beginning.
Not all at once, though: I have a few series of historical mysteries I like so much that I want to pace myself in reading them. Comfort reading, if you like, to be kept for Reading Weeks, once in a while… The Cragg & Fidelis Mysteries belong to this restricted number.
Because, really, there is nothing I don’t love about them – beginning with the slightly unusual choice of setting. The depiction of Preston in the 1740 is wonderful, rich and layered, with a fine eye for social complexities and mores – and yet never overdone. Time and place are seen through the eyes of Coroner Titus Cragg, who writes his stories years later, drawing on his diary of the time, with a beautifully tuned period voice – that of an intelligent, compassionate, humourous, bookish man – combining the benefits of immediacy and reflection. The characters are complex, well-rounded, and engaging – from Titus to his friend and co-sleuth, the brilliant Luke Fidelis, a young physician with an analytical mind and an eye for the ladies; and then there are Titus’s clever and sensible wife Elizabeth, and the ever-grumbling clerk Furzey, and a whole town full of official and innkeepers, elderly ladies and beggars, shop owners and horse-breeders…
And, of course, into this rich and detailed world bad things happen – or what would our coroner and physician do with their time? The whodunits are intricate and interesting, and it is always fun to follow as the occasionally naive Titus and the occasionally fanciful Luke piece together evidence and human nature – usually more hindered than helped by Preston’s overbearing mayor and and none too smart constables.
I just finished Book 3, The Scrivener, a couple of days ago – and enjoyed it very much, and am now sorely tempted to jump to Book 5, but… pacing myself, remember? Ah well, we’ll see. Meanwhile, if you like well written historical mysteries with great characters and settings, I highly recommend Robin Blake’s Cragg & Fidelis.