Eighteen-century Lancashire. Evil thrives in the salubrious halls of Garlick Hall, causing a succession of disturbing events to run their course through the life of the tidy palatinate town of Preston. All is eventually disclosed in the pages of Blake’s gothic mystery after Dolores Brockletower, wife to squire Ramilles Brockletower, is found dead in the forest, lying in her riding clothes beneath an ancient oak tree.
Dolores's unusual physical vigor was well known, and her feats on horseback have become part of local mythology. Bound to be the object of all manner of fantastical gossip, her demise is made all the more notorious because she died so violently, her throat sliced open from ear to ear. While Dolores’s shunning of polite society also engendered suspicion, there are those in the village who speak of witchcraft from her birthplace in the West Indies.
With her reputation for being isolated and reclusive, hardly known outside the household, Dolores
fueled speculation as to why she had not yet provided Ramilles Brockletower with a heir.
Some have even gone so far as to say that not all was should be in this the marital bed. Perhaps the
lady of the manor was finally possessed when “the devil finally lost the taste for her society and chucked her over the roof."
The way Blake fleshes out the action in the aftermath of his heroine's demise makes the literary magic happen,
pitting a seasoned investigator against the well-appointed, privileged landowners
and an ancient, raggedly dressed widow who knows more than she‘s letting on. Dolores’s untimely death sets off a small earthquake, and it’s only natural for Titus Cragg, the town’s trusted lawyer and
coroner, and his friend Lucas Fideli, the local doctor, to investigate the case.
Titus knows that Squire Ramilles Brockletower is a gentleman, an important justice of the peace and a Member of Parliament, but he also knows
that the squire is hated by his tenants, who for years have resented his filching
of land that once belonged to them. Called “Black Ram Brockletower” by the servants and estate workers, rumor has it that Ramilles was in the habit of summoning "succubae" to his bed and that his dark-skinned “colonial-born” wife was holding conference with the devil.
Titus kicks off the story, meeting to exchange observations and speculations. But the seismic shift in the tale comes with a startling revelation: that Dolores may have been blindsided by Brockletower’s cruel and masculine force even as she was driven to right the wrongs of her conflicted nature. Ramilles becomes a prime suspect, playing a lethal personal and political game as one who literally and figuratively sucks the life out of everyone around him including his blind sister, who Titus attends to with love and affection.
Literarily built from the ground up, Blake’s tale abounds with period idiom,
adding much to the gothic flavor as grave robbers converge in the white and pink-framed Ice-house. Blake’s prose is smooth and precise,
building realistic tension that urges the reader on from chapter to chapter, exploring Dolores’ death from the vantage points of Titus, his wife, Elizabeth, and Fideli, who becomes Titus’ valiant and valued expert in infant eighteenth-century anatomical techniques.
While there’s talk of Ramilles hidden life, of secrets whispered and nefarious deeds, Blake mixes it all up with a vibrant combination of good and bad characters. We feel the villain's motivation as well as the compliant and superstitious nature of the era. Throughout, the bond between Fideli and Titus remains inviolate, their shared experiences perhaps setting the scene for the next chapter in this compelling series.