A Masterpiece of Corruption | L.C. Tyler | 2016 | Constable | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1657 and John Grey has returned to London to complete his study of the law. A distraction awaits. He has received a letter, a summons to a meeting, from a Mr S.K. His landlady was enchanted by the messenger. He wore a lot of lace – there is so little lace in these days of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. John Grey, though, unlike his landlady, is a staunch Republican, pleased in the knowledge that the ‘threadbare Pretender’ Charles Stuart is safely exiled in the Netherlands. It comes as a huge surprise, then, that when Grey arrives at the meeting, he learns that he has been summoned by representatives of the Sealed Knot, a secret Royalist organisation. Before he knows what hit him, Grey has agreed to assassinate the absent king’s greatest enemy – Oliver Cromwell.
From this moment on, John Grey is in trouble. It’s soon apparent that the Sealed Knot is under the misapprehension that Grey is actually his father, a well-known Royalist who, according to his wife and Grey’s mother, died at one of several battles during the Civil War but is in fact living in Brussels with a woman of ill-repute. Now that Grey knows of the secret plans to kill Cromwell, he cannot let the Sealed Knot know who he really is. He’s also not keen on the Parliamentarians discovering that he’s been hired to murder their leader. Caught in the middle and determined to foil the plot, Grey carries out the first part of the plan – to gain employment in Cromwell’s court. Unfortunately, that employment is in the service of Cromwell’s spymaster and when Cromwell himself shows some personal interest in John Grey, things are looking not just confused but exceedingly perilous.
A Masterpiece of Corruption presents a complex and elaborate tale. Although narrated by John Grey, each chapter is headed by the name of a crucial individual in the development of the plot, highlighting just how deeply Grey is ensnared in a trap of webs. Matters aren’t helped by the arrival at his lodgings of the beautiful Aminta, his ‘cousin’, a woman who once stole Grey’s heart and now wants Grey to use his influence with Cromwell to restore lands and title to her aristocratic husband. As if Grey’s allegiances weren’t confused enough. And all the time, John Grey knows that he is being watched by both sides, each trying to catch him out and neither valuing his living soul much more than his dead body.
The novel explores Commonwealth England and the Royalist Netherlands. In one, people are rounded up in churches and thrown in the Tower of London simply for celebrating Christmas. In the other, a suspicious and damaged exiled Prince and King is prepared to use ultimate force to win back his throne and avenge his father. These are bleak, dangerous times and, perhaps for the first time, John Grey sees the truth of it. The increasing worry about what will happen to the Commonwealth should Oliver Cromwell die is all too evident. This is a time of crisis.
There are no heroes here. It seems that everybody is compromised to some degree. The way to survive is through wits and guile. John Grey must learn on his feet. But it’s easy to become frustrated with him, particularly when he is caught under the spell of Aminta. Alongside the plot to overthrow Cromwell, there is the personal story of Grey and his father and at times it’s quite a tragic affair.
The reader needs to have their wits about them when reading A Masterpiece of Corruption – nobody can be trusted, everyone has some disguise or other. Enough time has passed since the Civil War to allow old enemies to talk of reconciliation. But spies are everywhere. If Grey escapes with his life it’ll be a miracle. Trapped between both sides, and expendable to both, Grey is up to his eyes in plots and counterplots. Over complicated in places and dry in others, this is nevertheless an intriguing look at the Commonwealth of England in the late 1650s, one of the most fascinating periods in English history.
I was delighted to be asked to take part in the Blog Tour for A Masterpiece of Corruption. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below: