William Falkland waits in Newgate for the guard to fetch him for the hangman’s noose. So many have already been taken, hopelessly leaving their farewell messages with Falkland. But when Falkland is finally collected from the muck and filth, a cloth sack thrown over his head, it’s not to the gallows he’s taken but to a carriage that drives him and his sickly-breathed guard to Westminster. And there Falkland comes face to face with Oliver Cromwell, a man charged by Parliament with putting an end to the war. It is the winter of 1645. The English Civil War has endured for over three years but now Cromwell believes he has the means at hand to drive the King to terms – his New Model Army, a paid, trained and disciplined army, the first of its kind. But all is not perfect. There have been suicides in the New Model Army winter camp. Cromwell needs a spy, someone who won’t be afraid. He believes William Falkland is his man, a Royalist but a man who has not been afraid to stand up to the King and has a knack for finding out the truth. So into the lion’s den, Falkland must go.
The Royalist is a deliciously atmospheric read and it immerses us, and Falkland, in the merciless chill of this cold and dark winter. Following a long and mutually suspicious journey, Falkland and his reluctant companion Warbeck arrive in the army camp, its soldiers dispirited and freezing, their commanders standing up to eat as their chairs are burnt for warmth. The army’s leader is Fairfax, appropriately known as Black Tom, but even he, despite the nickname, seems eager to discover the reasons for the spate of suicides of young soldiers, no more than boys, all found hanging from, or blown up under, a witching tree.
Falkland is our narrator but he’s not necessarily the most reliable of witnesses or, at least, he doesn’t see fit to tell us too much about that past that brought him to the attention of Cromwell. But, through Falkland and through his discoveries, we are given the harshest of glimpses into the hard lives of these soldiers as well as the lives of the poor villagers who have been displaced, dehumanised and even killed by this mass of men. One woman, the innkeeper Kate Cain, has been left behind. Falkland lodges with her – slowly and carefully they begin to dance around one another. Both, though, have so much to hide. As for Falkland, he has been deeply damaged by years of service to the King. Both sides are far from admirable.
The portrait of the army is compelling. Its ranks comprise young boys, often pressganged from Royalist captured forces. They are superstitious, frightened, releasing tension through violence and rough sports. This is an army at war with itself. S.J. Deas has no need in this novel to describe battles, skirmishes and marches – this wintering army, oppressively non-moving, trapped by snow and ice, contains more than enough drama and action to fill a whole series of books. It is a fine setting for an atmospheric, frosty historical mystery.
The Royalist is a short novel but it is a full one. In fact, my only issue with the novel is that it is partly a victim of its own success – its portrait of the army and of life in England during these terrible years is so evocative, and its narrator and other characters so fascinating, that the mystery itself seems secondary and not as intriguing as I would have hoped. Nevertheless, The Royalist is a fine novel, immersing us so deeply into the dark and dirty world of Cromwell’s Model Army during one particularly cold and chilling winter. This is the first in a series to feature William Falkland and I look forward enormously to the next.