A Dark Anatomy: Robin Blake's detective novel of body-snatchers and scoundrels in 1740s Preston

PUBLISHED: 13:32 11 April 2011 | UPDATED: 12:00 28 February 2013

A Dark Anatomy: Robin Blake's detective novel of body-snatchers and scoundrels in 1740s Preston

A Dark Anatomy: Robin Blake's detective novel of body-snatchers and scoundrels in 1740s Preston

Lancashire author Robin Blake cut his teeth with television's Lynda La Plante. Now he has invented his own sleuth. He talks to Roger Borrell Photography by John Cocks

Prestons Cheapside may never be mentioned in the same breath as 221b Baker Street, but it is destined to become a familiar location on the fictional crime map of Britain.

The house there is occupied by the towns coroner, Titus Cragg, and he has an awful lot on his plate - murder in Fulwood, mutterings of witchcraft around Fishwick and whispers of body-snatching in Friar Gate.

A Dark Anatomy is very much a novel about Preston - it even has a map on the inside cover and anyone who knows the city will recognise many place names. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover the author Robin Blake is a Preston lad with a keen interest in history and crime.

This is no modern novel of dark deeds. It is set in the 1740s, the Age of Enlightenment in many parts of Europe, but probably not Preston. Titus is the central character but every Holmes needs his Watson - step forward young doctor Lucas Fidelis.

Between them, they have to investigate the murder of the squires wife, found in the woods with her throat cut. Its not giving much away to reveal that this is just the first gruesome death in A Dark Anatomy, a tale laced with suspicion and superstition.

When it comes to crime, Robin certainly has previous. While this is the first novel published under his name, he has built up a reputation as a ghost writer and has worked with TV crime doyen and creator of Prime Suspect Lynda La Plante.

However, Robin - born in Mount Street, Preston, in 1948 - is also an accomplished art biographer with books on Van Dyke and the Lancashire born painter, George Stubbs.

While I was researching Stubbs I gathered a huge amount of information about Lancashire during the 18th Century, says Robin, whose mother still lives in the city. Before he became well-known for his pictures of horses, Stubbs travelled through Lancashire as a jobbing portrait painter and its highly likely he spent time in Preston. (A boy called George, who is handy with a pencil, does appear in A Dark Anatomy.)

Id wanted to write a crime novel of my own and I chose Preston partly because I was born here and partly because it was such an interesting place in the 18th Century. It was an important legal centre and the Duchy had a strong presence here. It was more important than Lancaster, but little or nothing of the old Preston is left.

His ancestors were Irish Catholics who took mill jobs in south Lancashire. One of them, John Blake, had a talent for engineering and he founded the family firm in Accrington making water pumps which were used around the world - from farms to the Taj Mahal.

Robin went to Cambridge and became a teacher in London before travelling abroad. A career in broadcasting involved making features for Londons Capital Radio before moving into television and writing.

While the characters in the book are flights of fancy, Robin has freely embroidered his story and changed the names of people he knew were in official positions at the time. Preston simply provides me with the stage, he says.

Its striking that hes written a detective novel set in the days before detectives had been invented. There were no police then, he says. You could say justice was privatised. There were many crimes where the victim had to prove guilt themselves or forget it.

For all its meticulous period detail, A Dark Anatomy is a fast-faced, page-turner with a filmic quality which could, no doubt, tempt Miss La Plante to turn it into a television drama.

Its the first of three - Robin is already half way through the sequel. His publishers Macmillan have compared it to C.J.Sansom, the writer of thrillers set in Tudor times. When you consider how many millions he has sold, you realise this is praise indeed.

Prestons past

Around the time Robins book is based, one writer said Preston for its beauty and largeness compare with most cities. For the politeness of the inhabitants none can excel.

Here is a handsome church and a town hall where the corporation meets for business and the gentlemen and ladies for balls and assemblies.

Here is likewise a spacious marketplace in the midst of which stands a fine obelisk. The obelisk is one of the few things that remain from the days of Titus Cragg.

Lancashire Life reader Paula Hardman reviews A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake

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