The British Isles were torn apart by the English Civil War but in 1649 the violence suffered by communities in pitched battles or on the streets of besieged cities and castles was compounded by an event that for many would have swept the ground from beneath their feet – the execution of the king by his subjects. It also presented Oliver Cromwell with a problem. He might have won the war but could he rule? The threads of the old ways, the old networks of government, could still be there, but deeply hidden and encoded by secrets, ready to be woken up by the right word said by the right man.
In Traitor’s Field we enter a chase or trail, a mystery meticulously plotted by Robert Wilton. We track Sir Mortimer Shay – the aged, portly, utterly ruthless last hope of the Royalist cause from the moment that he finds a letter, seemingly innocuous, on the body of a non-fighting man on the battlefield of Preston in 1648. A decisive victory for the Parliamentarians, the defeat marks the end for Charles I, but out of the devastation, literally from among the heaped bodies, Shay picks up the scent of the Royalist secret intelligence agency run by the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Security. We witness the network come alive.
Where you have Royalists, you also have Parliamentarians and in Traitor’s Field Shay’s opposing figure is John Thurloe, a young official making his name in Cromwell’s service. He is exceedingly clever. Like Shay. A cat and mouse game ensues, complete with snares and traps, false leads and false hopes. It is immensely dangerous, and not just for Shay and Thurloe, and we follow the hunt across all regions of the British Isles. I’m going to say nothing about the plot except to say that you will need to pay attention. Intrigue and adventure co-exist. Clever words, deceitful letters lie side by side with extreme bravery in the face of the enemy. Words, bullets, knife blades – all deadly.
But what makes Traitor’s Field such an engrossing and riveting novel is not just the excitement of the hunt, the intellectual pleasure of solving a clue or unravelling a thread, or even the chase through dark streets or across marshes, it is the characters that the plot encounters. As the story develops we meet the people Shay and Thurloe care for – their weaknesses – as well as other men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for future generations. ‘The things we have suffered for Charles Stuart’ is a frequent refrain. The Marquess of Montrose is just one of many characters who caused me grief. Charles I himself is such a poignant figure here. Wilton’s prose is heart wrenching and immediate. In a stream of consciousness, we follow the last thoughts of the King. Throughout the novel, Wilton gives us broken pieces from his characters’ thoughts – their worries and questions and uncertainties.
It is such a great strength of Robert Wilton’s writing – this combination of intellect and heart. Some of the novels ideas will haunt me for quite a while. Shay worries repeatedly about the world that he and Thurloe (or men like themselves) are leaving for future generations. This is especially painful because he knows he is the direct cause of young men being killed and young women being victimised. Women are relatively few here but that is also a theme. Shay’s wife, a figure I won’t forget quickly, reflects on legacy and sacrifice. We do have a young heroine – Rachel, Shay’s niece. Despite her dangerous situation she embodies hope and she makes both Shay and Thurloe reflect on whether civil war can ever be worth it. Thoughts shared by the young Charles Stuart hiding within the trees.
Don’t expect to read Traitor’s Field quickly. It comprises short segments with ‘reprints’ of documents, some using 17th-century fonts unfamiliar to modern readers. I liked how these were used a great deal and it pays to give them close attention. Characters and plotlines are only slowly unwound. There are plenty of action sequences but all the time you need to be alert for clues to the wider picture. The writing itself is stunning – questioning, disjointed, evocative, mixing tenses. The prose gives us no protection, it thrusts us into the heart of it all.
Traitor’s Field is a thoroughly rewarding and engrossing read. After I finished it, all I wanted was more. Much, much more.
I’m pleased to update the review with this author video from Robert Wilton.