The discovery of a baby’s body in a tanner’s pit has the 18th-century English town of Preston in an uproar.
Coroner Titus Cragg, called to the skin yard to examine the body of a newborn, seeks help from his friend Luke Fidelis, a doctor with very advanced opinions for 1743. Fidelis is not home, but Cragg chances to meet the old-fashioned Dr. Harrod, who believes the baby was stillborn. When Fidelis returns, however, his comprehensive exam makes it clear the baby was murdered by someone who stuck a pointed object through its ear into the brain. Many townspeople assume that Kathy Brock, a local girl with a loose reputation, is the mother and killer. Cragg is not so sure. Meanwhile, several wealthy members of the town are secretly hatching a scheme to get rid of the skin yard and make the local swamp into a much larger docking area than the town currently has. When the inn where Cragg is holding the inquest is burned, most likely by an arsonist, the crowd is lucky to escape. Lady Rickaby, whom Cragg saves from the fire, lodges a complaint against him because he saw her nether regions when he had to cut off her hoops to fit her through the window. The mayor, who dislikes Cragg, is happy to use the incident as an excuse to remove Cragg as coroner. While Cragg plans an appeal to the Earl of Derby to get reinstated, he and Fidelis look for motives among the high- and lowborn of the town, uncover a lot of nasty secrets, and come to a satisfying conclusion.
Blake’s meticulous research makes his latest account of crime and medicine in the mid-1700s (The Hidden Man, 2015, etc.) a pleasure to read even though mystery mavens will have no trouble unmasking the killer.