Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins, 2016)

September 1666 and the Great Fire burns much of London to the ground. James Marwood’s home survives, but only because he lives a few miles away with his disgraced father, a plotter of the downfall of King Charles I, whose son is now king. Marwood is employed in Whitehall as a clerk, running errands for Master Williamson, who as well as managing affairs of state publishes the Gazette newspaper. In the aftermath of the fire, there is much to be addressed, including the rebuilding of the city and investigating a suspicious death. The man murdered was in the employ of Lord Alderley, a rich goldsmith, significant property investor and a moneylender to the king. Alderley is the guardian to Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, his niece and daughter of an infamous regicide who is still on the run. Betrothed to a man she detests and desired by her lecherous cousin, Cat leaves the household, working as a maid in a lodging house. Despite never knowing each other prior to a chance encounter during the Great Fire, Marwood and Cat’s lives are linked through their fathers’ membership of the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical religious, anti-royalist group. Their lives become further entwined as Marwood searches for a killer who seems intent on pursuing a bloody revenge.

Set in the months after the Great Fire of London in 1666, The Ashes of London utilizes real characters (including King Charles II, Christopher Wren and Joseph Williamson) and events to spin a historical crime fiction tale that is full of political intrigue. At the centre of the tale is an on-going conspiracy concerning the actions of Fifth Monarchists who helped Oliver Cromwell dispose of King Charles II, some of whom are still at large despite King Charles I being restored to the throne. Beyond the historicisation and sense of place, which is nicely done providing interesting wider context without dominating the tale, the strength of the story is the two principle characters. James Marwood and Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett have anti-royalist fathers, but are trying to get on with their lives in the new regime. Marwood’s father has served his time, but is now suffering from mild dementia. While serving as a lowly clerk in Whitehall, Marwood tries to look after and protect his ailing and ostracised father. Cat is living in her aunt, who has married the wealthy Lord Alderley, but is unhappy with their plans for her and the attentions of her cousin. When a servant of the Alderley household is murdered Marwood is asked to investigate. By the time he reaches the Alderley residence Cat has fled, taking refuge as a maid in a lodging house. The plot progresses by telling the Marwood side of the tale in the first-person, and Cat’s side in the third person. Taylor keeps the pace relatively swift, charting the paths of both protagonists and their various trials and tribulations. There are no real surprises in the story and the wrap up after the major denouement felt a little flat with some open threads. I’m not sure if that’s because Taylor is planning a sequel or it ran out of steam or he wanted to avoid obvious plot wrap ups. Overall, an interesting and engaging medieval investigative procedural.

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