Author of the Month

Name: Imogen Robertson

First Novel: Instruments of Darkness

Most Recent Book: Circle of Shadows

'‘Circle of Shadows’ is a masterly addition to an already highly addictive series.'

In this book, the fourth of the series, Gabriel Crowther and Harriet Westerman are forced out of their cosy and safe life in Sussex into the middle of seventeenth century European intrigue. Harriet’s sister, Rachel is spending time travelling in Europe with her new husband, Daniel Clode, when news comes that Daniel has been arrested for murder in the Duchy of Maulberg, part of the Holy Roman Empire. Harriet and Gabriel, together with a party of friends and supporters, set off to the rescue.

They find themselves in the middle of a complicated web of secret societies, family intrigue and not least Harriet’s old adversary, the castrato Manzerotti. Daniel is extremely confused in prison after being arrested for the murder of a favoured lady at court. Convinced of his innocence, Harriet and Gabriel manage to have him released, but they are committed to finding out who is behind the series of murders that have ensued.

The old delights of this series continue as we learn more about the character of Harriet Westerman as she battles to save her sister’s husband. Harriett is feisty, determined, resourceful and honest. She gradually learns to revise her previous opinion of the castrato Manzerotti, although never completely won over. She is a very real character who develops as the book progresses. Gabriel also develops throughout the book as he comes to realise that his solitary life of study is not as satisfying as he had previously thought.

With ‘Circle of Shadows’, Harriett and Gabriel pursue their investigations in middle Europe and for me learning about the curious world of the small German nation states gave me as much enjoyment as the crime at the centre of Robertson’s novel. The secret societies allied to Freemasonry are wonderfully explored, and the ingenuity of the manufacture of the wonderful automata is revealed. You can tell that Robertson’s careful research is put to good use, but it is very cleverly integrated into the exciting story line which for me added to the enjoyment of this book and gave it an extra dimension. As always with this series - character, plot and historical background meld perfectly together to provide a completely satisfying whole.

In my eyes Robertson is fast becoming a name to watch in crime fiction and this latest will surely garner her many more fans around the world. ‘Circle of Shadows’ is a masterly addition to an already highly addictive series.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) When deciding to write a crime series why did you choose the 18th century to set your books and has this period been a longstanding passion of yours?
It has indeed, so the decision to set the books in that period was an easy one. I picked up a copy of The Age Scandal by T.H. White from a second hand book-shop in Cambridge just before I graduated and fell in love with the period. The book is so colourful and gossipy and it set me on a decade of reading about the 18th century and the letters and diaries of the time. It was a period of great and profound change; a consumer society was developing, the cities were swelling, the industrial revolution was gathering pace. Also that culture of civility, of enlightenment that we think of today as being quintessentially 18th century was taking hold - think Gerorgian buildings and Mozart, but at the same time the world was still a brutal, violent place. Public executions were a holiday spectacle, child mortality rates were incredibly high; there was no police force or modern medicine. There was another key book for me. About the time I was beginning to think about writing Instruments of Darkness I read ‘A Gentleman’s Daughter’ by Amanda Vickery, a brilliant work of popular scholarship that offered me a fresh insight into lives of upper-middle class women like Harriet. The voices in their letters are so clear and alive.
2) Following on from that do you have a hero or heroine from that period and are Harriet Westerman or Gabriel Crowther based on anybody from that time?
I have dozens of heroes from the period, and there are individuals who feel like friends because I’ve read so many of their letters and diaries. Walpole’s letters I read and reread; Fanny Burney, Lady Mary Wortely Montagu and I’ve just recently added another to my personal pantheon: Eleanor Coade, the inventor of Coade stone which decorates many London houses of the period. She was a fascinating example of a single woman who owned and ran a successful business in her own name.

Harriet and Crowther developed into unique individuals in the course of writing the books, so I don’t think I could say either of them were based on anyone in particular. Of course, as an anatomist, Crowther owes a lot to John Hunter, though he’s very different as a personality.
3) Your fourth novel in the Westerman and Crowther series, ‘Circle of Shadows’ takes place in the German Duchy of Maulberg. Why did you choose to set this novel abroad?
A new challenge for myself and for Harriet and Crowther! The history of the Holy Roman Empire is fascinating. Culturally these small absolutist sates shared a great deal with Britain, but there were also profound differences and the Empire too was in a stage of transition. Crowther studied in Germany, so I thought there were connections there I could make use of.
4) With ‘Circle of Shadows’ mainly set in a foreign country did you have to be extra careful regarding research as the book was based in another country?
It certainly made the research more of a challenge, but I read German at university so that gave me a head start. I also made a lot of use of the fantastic library at the German Historical Institute in London. I found there a wealth of material to draw on to create a plausible Maulberg. And they give you a cup of tea in the afternoon. Very civilised. I also went to Germany of course and came back with thick files and photographs of the places I was going to use. I don’t think I had to be more careful, it just took a bit more work to get hold of the material.
5) ‘Circle of Shadows’ also involves the Freemasons and alchemy. What is about these subjects that interested you enough to include them?
Both are worthy of several novels of their own! Alchemy is a fascinating business with its mix of the spiritual and practical. The symbolism, the philosophy is rich and profound, but of course alchemy was equally tied up with get rich quick schemes, frauds and charlatans. That dualism fascinated me. Also the illustrations in alchemical works are often very beautiful; great food for the creative imagination.

Freemasonry is very different, but equally fascinating. People were trying to come together in new ways for their education; personal, spiritual and political. They were looking beyond the old semi-feudal systems of peasant, burger and aristocracy for a new sort of brotherhood; or sisterhood - there were lodges for women too. The traditions of secrecy also made Freemasonry attractive to the curious, and threatening to the governments on the continent. It’s a very confused, colourful picture. A lot of people called themselves freemasons but had developed very esoteric leanings. Characters such as Cagliostro realised they could, by claiming ancient pedigree for their own invented versions of freemasonry, wield enormous influence among the rich and powerful for their own ends, and did.
6) If you had to pair up two people I would not have put Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther together. What decided you to write about such an unlikely pairing and why do you think it works in your books?
They are different, but there are still things that they share. They are both driven by curiosity; they want to know how things work. They both have a certain stubbornness and pride too, I think, which means that when they get the bit between their teeth, neither of them want to stop, even when there are obvious costs to them as they continue. I wanted a friendship that would challenge both of them, but they would come to value very highly.
7) From reading your books I get the feeling you really enjoy writing about Gabriel. In ‘Island of Bones’ we finally get background on the enigma that is Gabriel Crowther. Was it always in your ‘plan’ to tell us of Crowther’s troubled history?
Am I supposed to have a plan? That’s worrying! I wanted to know what exactly had happened to Crowther myself and discover what he was before and after the trauma of his father’s death. I could only really work that out by writing the book. I do love writing about him. There is a sense of fellow feeling there, I think. Every writer should be a hermit to a degree, an observer.
8) Does your previous career as a TV director influence your writing in any way?
TV was a great training in story telling. I still think of camera terms when I write too; close ups, wide shots, point of view. Also you learn to be brutal in TV, things have to justify their inclusion on screen, so you carry that into your writing. What is the scene doing and why do I need it?
9) I hear you are currently writing a standalone novel before returning to the Westerman/Crowther series. Can you give us a taster of your next novel?
Certainly! It’s set in Paris in the early 20th century and is the story of young English woman, Maud, who has come to the city train as an artist. She’s in danger of starving and then it seems luck gives her a helping hand. The climax of the story takes place during the floods of January 1910. The book also follows the story of Astrid who, a hundred years later, is asked to investigate the mystery of Maud’s time in Paris. A dark story of betrayed hope and revenge. I haven’t finished it yet, but that’s what I’m aiming for!
10) What would you say would be your top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Gaudy Night - D.L. Sayers
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
Killing me Softly - Nicci French
oh and can I please have another? Scold’s Bridle - Minnette Walters