The Black Friar | S.G. MacLean | 2016, Pb 2017 | Quercus | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1655 and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, faces a direct threat from the Fifth Monarchists – believers who once fought alongside Cromwell against the King but, now that Cromwell has adopted almost regal status, want Cromwell removed, too. There can be no king but Christ. But the Commonwealth has more trouble on its hands than just militant Puritans. Royalists continue to plot to return the King in Exile to these shores and have become organised enough to create a new organisation of Royalist activists, the Sealed Knot. A threat can come from any direction. And when one of Cromwell’s agents is found dead, wearing a black friar’s habit, entombed while still alive within the ruins of London’s black friars monastery, Cromwell turns to his most feared agent, the inscrutable and charismatic Captain Damian Seeker.
The Black Friar follows hot on the heels of the first book in this new series by S.G. MacLean, The Seeker, and stands alone well as a complete and distinct mystery in its own right. Having said that, if you have read The Seeker then you will enjoy all the more re-meeting some of that first novel’s wonderful cast of characters (not all of them human). Damian Seeker’s character develops through these two books and that, I think, is one of the big draws of this series – I have fallen for the Seeker – and so I would suggest you read the earlier book first as I have just done (the review’s here).
S.G. MacLean has given us another excellent and complex mystery to enjoy. This one has even more strands than the last and the Seeker has a team of agents helping – and sometimes hindering – his investigations as one puzzle soon becomes two. It’s particularly enjoyable that two of these agents are well known to history – Samuel Pepys and Andrew Marvell. I loved the interaction of fiction with history during this, the most fascinating of times. The Seeker moves through it all almost like a tall, black-cloaked raven. There is something sinister and undoubtedly attractive about this man. He as good as wears a mask, all London turns away when he rides past on his great horse, he is feared by every side, but occasionally here the mask slips and I think my heart might have been stolen, just a little.
I thoroughly enjoy S.G. MacLean’s recreation of London during the Commonwealth. What a strange period this is, with its reminders of past pleasures, such as the theatres, which are now forbidden. But these novels aren’t quick to judge. Neither Royalist nor Puritan is upheld as the ideal, crimes are committed on both sides and sometimes there are other criminals who rise above politics and religion and are purely evil. Unravelling all of this isn’t easy and, despite the help of code-breakers, Damian Seeker has much to unpick.
The characterisation is as strong as the historical setting. Quite apart from Damian Seeker, who is one of the most appealing heroes I’ve come across in quite some time, there are a host of other characters on both sides of the political divide who grab our attention. There are far too many to mention and they are key to the pleasure that this novel provides. And not all are men, either, or adults. We’re presented with a community in turmoil just as the agents who investigate the mysteries are likewise complex in their relationships with one another and to the Seeker.
I have grown well and truly attached to the Seeker series. The Commonwealth is such an intriguing time, overlooked by both the Civil War and the Restoration that sandwich it, and here it is paid full service by S.G. MacLean, a fine writer with a terrific grasp of history and character. Damian Seeker is a fantastic creation. Long may he continue.