It is 1661. Finally, the bloody years of Civil War are finished and the dour Commonwealth of Cromwell overthrown. King Charles II is restored to the throne – clothes are at their most elaborate, the theatres are full, the coffee bars buzzing with whispering gossips, and the parks of London are alive once more with promenaders in their finest. But while the city celebrates the coronation, not all is as it should be. Not everyone is happy to see the end of republicanism and there are powers abroad all too ready to stir up dissident voices or, worse, put money in the pockets of murderers.
Thomas Hill is a reluctant visitor to London. In town for the coronation, he stays with old friends Mary and Charles Carrington who entertain him one evening with a dinner party. Among the guests is senior government official and adviser to the King, Joseph Williamson. Williamson is also in charge of the Post Office, an institution that has considerably less to do with delivering letters than opening them, copying them and informing on their authors and recipients, because Joseph Williamson is the King’s chief spymaster. When Joseph learns of Thomas’s previous great success as cryptographer, he is at pains to make use of his skills. For Joseph has a problem. Men in his employ are falling foul of a murderer, their throats cut. Joseph suspects that it signifies nothing less than an international plot against the monarchy. No-one wants a return to Civil War, at least no-one in their right mind. But as Thomas works to unravel the clues, the danger draws ever closer until it is not just a national emergency he is at risk of discovering, but also a personal disaster.
The King’s Return is the third novel in Andrew Swanston’s series on cryptographer Thomas Hill, with previous novels looking at his career in Civil War Oxford and then his years in Barbados. It is, though, my first. I was attracted to this particular novel because of its setting in 1661. I have read a fair few novels set in the English Civil War but none set during the Restoration. What a fascinating time it must have been! These glory years after violence and austerity and before Plague and Fire. And that is the extent of my knowledge. The good news is that The King’s Return holds up very well indeed as a standalone novel and it didn’t matter that I knew so little about Thomas’s past. Although, having said that, I do have the previous two books and I intend to read them. Thomas and Mary Carrington have history and I would like to investigate.
The King’s Return is very much focused on the plot and it’s a satisfyingly complex and twisty spy tale, which combines both intellectual exercise and intrepid adventure. The two go well together and there is a strong sense that Thomas is challenged in more ways than one while the reader never actually doubts that he will triumph in the end. But while we are confident about Thomas, we certainly aren’t about Madeleine Stewart, the woman that Thomas falls for. I enjoyed their relationship in the novel very much. This is an adult affair. Both Thomas and Madeline have endured much and we learn a little of that here. The shadow of Civil War overhangs The King’s Return and everyone in it, from the king himself downwards. London witnesses almost daily the king’s vengeance against his father’s executioners while Thomas and Madeleine have their own reasons and raw wounds to detest the recent war. The theatres might be open again but they can be volatile places. Crowds in post-war London have a mob-like tendency.
The theatre analogies continue through the book. Thomas Hill decrypts his case as if he were dismantling the scenes of a play. His suspects are given roles in the drama, his notes construct each act. The players are all, to one degree or another, actors. Some are better at it than others. Fortunately, though, we are in safe hands with Thomas Hill, our modest, quiet and very likeable unraveller of secrets.
The King’s Return is an entertaining and relatively light read, with an exciting plot and villains worthy of it. It has an air of manners about it, befitting its setting. But when the masks are removed and the action moves from the dining rooms into bedrooms or taken outside the house or office into London’s poorest streets or its Godforsaken marshes, the truth will out.
Tomorrow, I am delighted to say, I will be hosting a guest post from Andrew Swanston on spies and spying in the Civil War. Excellent!