Sleuthing with science
Author Tessa Harris is sure to garner a host of followers for her new mystery series featuring Dr. Thomas Silkstone, anatomist and forensic detective. The Anatomist’s Apprentice opens at a time in late 18th-century England when many scientists pioneering in the new fields of dissection and anatomy have become fascinated by the field’s forensic possibilities and are increasingly being called to crime scenes to help determine cause of death in possible cases of murder.
Against this historical backdrop, Dr. Silkstone finds himself drawn away from his laboratory and classroom to assist in exhuming and examining a corpse at the request of the victim’s sister Lydia, who fears that Lord Edward Crick may have been murdered. Even more shockingly, she secretly fears the perpetrator may have been her own husband. Silkstone must isolate and identify the substances present in the victim’s body. He also must identify the people who had the means and motive to ensure that Edward would breathe his last breath at their secret behest.
When Silkstone falls in love with Lydia, he finds no solace when her husband, Captain Farrell, is arrested for the murder: He believes the man to be innocent. He must carefully investigate all those with close connections to the murdered man, including Lady Crick, Lydia’s weak-minded mother; the maidservant, Hannah Lovelock, whose own daughter has recently died tragically; Lord Edward’s cousin, Francis Crick, once a suitor to Lydia; and Captain Farrell’s own lawyer, James Lavington, a longtime tenant on the estate with an agenda of his own.
The descriptions in The Anatomist’s Apprentice will boggle readers’ minds: There are shelves of flasks, flagons, bottles, jars and other containers of herbs, leaves, oils, creams, lotions, plants, fungi and odd-smelling roots. These tools are the sort cultivated and understood not only by doctors and scientists, but by farmers and plainspoken folk who use them routinely—and sometimes not so routinely—in their daily lives.
Difficult as it is to imagine that men were attracted to women as seemingly useless and docile as Lady Crick, this is a novel of its time, and Dr. Silkstone must work through his own horrible suspicions as he seeks to protect Lydia while proving her husband’s innocence. Tricks, twists and turns prevail throughout the story. The author’s detailed research on the historical era pays off handsomely in this engrossing, lively and satisfying series debut.