C. A. Asbrey’s Western Detective
The fields of criminology and forensics have advanced by incredible strides in the past decades, and what is there to say of the progress made over the last century. Today we have the ability to reconstruct crime scenes from the most minute details, to obtain strands of DNA from the slightest piece of evidence. In many cases, the forensic evidence itself does all the real detective work. While in real life I am certainly glad to be benefiting from these advancements, in the realms of literature, I feel as if they are slowly choking the mystery genre. There is a very unique and special allure specific to the early days of investigative methods, and in her novel The Innocents, C. A. Asbrey takes us back in time into the western world of 1868 where a murderer needs apprehending.
The novel, which by the way marks the beginning of the series by the same name, introduces us to a Pinkerton Detective, Abigail Mackay. She specializes in two very particular departments: disguises and new crime-solving technology. The events begin unfolding as she tracks down a gang of notorious train robbers, led by ringleaders Nat and Jake who themselves are no strangers to the new technology of the era. After a mishap which forces Nat and Jake to rescue Abigail from another gang, they enlist her help to solve a case close to their hearts: the murder of a family friend. Owing her life to them, Abigail accepts the work, knowing full well at the end she will have to turn them over into the palms of the law. However, many things could happen between now and then, and it may turn out she has met her match from the dark side of the tracks.
Old Discoveries Made New
I would like to preface this by saying I have a special place in my heart for detective mysteries which take us back to the old days when even new technology was quite limited in the help it would offer to solve cases. The greatest pleasure in this genre comes from watching the detective work their powers of reasoning and deduction, while we try to crack the mystery alongside them and find in our analysis details they might have otherwise missed. The Innocents brought me back this increasingly rare pleasure, and I feel it does so very successfully in large part due to the amount of research the author put in before writing this book.
C. A. Asbrey is indeed very passionate about the field of forensics, and she never passes up the opportunity to shed some light on old-time gadgets or techniques, demonstrating how they might have worked in real life. While I am certain some of Abigail’s methods are objectively outdated by today’s standards, the author nevertheless finds interesting and believable ways to apply them to the story. While she might be all about this new crime-solving technology, she certainly doesn’t lack in the department of deductive reasoning, capable of stringing together in her mind complex logic chains based on smaller clues. This combination of purely mental and scientific approach gives her a certain aura reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps paying homage to one of the pioneers of the genre. However, it is coloured differently enough by her personality and general demeanour to make her feel like a character of her own rather than a different shade of the archetype we’re all familiar with.
The Excitement of the Western World
The story does have a primary focus on the murder plot, but there are actually many more elements surrounding it to give the story some variety in the directions it takes the reader in. For starters we are introduced rather intimately to the world of Nat and Jake, full of banditry and turmoil. The craft of holding up trains is also given a bit of time to shine, which I personally find one of the more interesting types of crime from those days, always requiring very careful planning and execution. Needless to say, as Abigail sticks around and helps the gang solve their murder, she finds herself in a rather eventful environment where it always feels as if something is just waiting to happen, helping preserve an atmosphere of tension throughout most of the book.
In addition to that, there is also the budding love story between Abigail and Nat, made extremely complicated by their differing allegiances to different sides of the law. We are always made to question how real the attraction between the two is exactly, how much they are intent on using one another for personal gains. While generally I’m not very much into the romance portion of murder mystery novels, I have to admit it was done intriguingly enough to get me interested and invested in its resolution. As you might imagine, it also pushes forward some philosophical and ethical questions revolving around the nature of a crime, the proper administration of judgement and punishment, and where one’s personal agenda might fit in.
The Final Verdict
In the end, The Innocents by C. A. Asbrey is an excellent debut novel which draws us back into what I like to call the golden age of old-school detectives. Abigail makes for a very compelling, believable and overall likeable protagonist certainly capable of carrying a murder mystery with her methods. The main plot always aims to keep you guessing until the final resolution, but does give you a fair chance at solving it alongside our main character. The various other elements, including romantic and philosophical, only complement the rest of the story and elevate it above the rank of a regular murder mystery book. If you enjoy detective stories set in the days when mind took precedence over technology, I have no doubt you will highly enjoy this one.
C. A. Asbrey is an author of mystery books with a passionate interest for early forensic and detection methods. She spent many years conducting research for her first novel, The Innocents , which kicked off The Innocents Mystery Series giving way to two more books so far, Innocent as Sin and Innocent Bystander.