An American physician in post–Revolutionary War England takes on a potent drug, a baffling murder and a determined rival.
When the headless body of botanical artist Matthew Bartlett is found tied to a pier in the Thames, anatomist Dr. Thomas Silkstone knows he’s in for a hard time. Not only does he want to solve the murder, but he’s also lost the last key member of a doomed expedition to Jamaica. Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, has asked Silkstone to catalog the flora and fauna collected by the two doctors who headed the expedition. It appears they were in search of a plant, the branched calalue bush, that would greatly benefit the medical community. But both doctors died of yellow fever, and Bartlett, who brought the ship home with the results of the expedition, was also entrusted with a detailed journal that’s gone missing. So has the one surviving sample of the calalue, which is a component in the African folk religion of Obeah. The plant can reportedly induce a deathlike state and is rumored to have an antidote that will bring patients back from the dead. However, it leaves them in a compliant state, perfect for use—and misuse—by military agents and West Indies planters who are allowed to bring their slaves to England, where slavery has been banned. When Jeremiah Taylor, a slave who overhears a conversation about another sinister effect of the drug, runs away and finds shelter with Silkstone, the Philadelphia-born doctor takes up Jeremiah’s cause with a pair of abolitionists. At the same time, Silkstone hopes for a reunion with Lady Lydia Farrell, the woman he loves but can’t marry because of a court order, without realizing that she’s in danger from a powerful enemy who can separate the couple indefinitely.
Harris (The Devil’s Breath, 2013, etc.) successfully balances history, homicide, science, sorcery and social justice in his idealistic hero’s fourth case. The only disappointment is a maddeningly inconclusive ending.