Archive for August 11th, 2014

An Anatomist and Enemy Alien in Eighteenth Century London

The Lazarus Curse: A Doctor Thomas Silkstone Mystery, by Tessa Harris, (Kensington Books), 352 pages

The Lazarus Curse is the fourth volume in Tessa Harris’s Dr. Thomas Silkstone mystery series. It’s the first of these novels that I’ve read—and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more.

Thomas Silkstone is a surgeon and anatomist in London, shortly after England’s defeat by its American colonies. Silkstone is highly capable at his craft; he’s also an enemy alien. He’s accorded respect and distrust in equal amounts.

In this novel, Silkstone has been hired to inventory the samples from a scientific expedition recently returned from Jamaica. Of the three scientists who traveled on this expedition, two have died, the third has disappeared, along with a key journal of their observations, and he’s feared dead.

Along with this central mystery, Silkstone finds himself wrestling with a number of other problems which force him to confront the acceptance of slavery in Britain, despite a judicial ruling years earlier determining that those who enter the country as slaves have a right to demand their freedom. Just as in our own time, the letter of the law and its actual practice are at odds. As Silkstone tends slave owners and their slaves he is confronted with the violence and dehumanization at the heart of the institution. What he formerly viewed as an abstract issue of justice is now an immediate and distressing challenge.

Harris also gives us a love interest, Silkstone’s former fiancee, the widowed Lady Lydia Farrell. Following her husband’s death, Lady Lydia’s son has become a ward of the crown, which means she can no longer consort with Silkstone because of his enemy status.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, and Harris balances these different plots adeptly. Too often, series novels either require familiarity with previous volumes or overcompensate by providing unnecessary backstory. The Lazarus Curse does neither of these. Harris’s portrayal of characters is rich enough that the reader quickly comes to know them—and this knowing allows the missing pieces of their stories to be inferred.

While Silkstone sorts out many of the problems he’s confronted with, he doesn’t quite manage all of them. Clearly Harris is already planning volume five in the series. Given her knowledge of this historical period and her skills as a writer, I’m looking forward to reading it.

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