Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom – a review and extract

Zaffre | 2018 (8 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hour by Harry SidebottomBallista runs for his life through the spiraling tunnels of Hadrian’s Mausoleum in the centre of Rome. As he climbs on to its roof top and stares down at the Tiber flowing many feet below him, his options are limited. The stakes, though, couldn’t be higher. At the last hour of daylight tomorrow, after a day of games and spectacle, the Emperor Gallienus will be murdered as he leaves the Colosseum. Ballista knew Gallienus when they were boys growing up together. He may be the only man allowed to get close enough to the emperor to save him. But before Ballista can save the emperor, he must first save himself.

It is the second half of the 3rd century AD. Gallienus is Emperor. The Empire is on the verge of being torn apart from within. And only one man stands in his way…. The Last Hour is a long awaited Ballista Warrior of Rome novel from the master Harry Sidebottom but it’s a Ballista book with a great deal of difference. This isn’t an adventure that sees Ballista fight for his life and those of his men in the empire’s most remote arenas of war – instead, he is placed in the heart of Rome and his high military rank is irrelevant. Ballista has just one task – to save the emperor, on his own, and to escape the conspirators who are intent on ensnaring Ballista in their trap.

The action takes place over just one day and it never lets up. This is a Roman thriller. There aren’t many of these and if an author can be trusted to do it right it’s Harry Sidebottom. The author brings an awful lot to it more than action and swordfights. As a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford, Harry Sidebottom knows his stuff and he always makes sure that his novels are enriched by that knowledge and understanding, but at no expense to their pace and merit as works of fiction. I always learn things from a Harry Sidebottom novel and The Last Hour is no different.

Throughout we’re given little pieces about Roman history and society – whether it be about the place of slaves and women in that world, or its religion and philosophy, its gladiatorial games or arena punishments, or its streets, tenements, temples, villas and inns. This book provides a fantastic tour of Rome. We move right across the city and, despite the pace, we’re given time to take it all in. And we’re taken to places that are evoked so strongly we can almost smell their stench. There are also references to the previous Ballista novels – we meet people we’ve met before and that adds something rather special. But, on the whole, this is a novel in which Ballista must survive, endure and win on his own and its edge of seat stuff, it really is.

The best historical fiction entertains while also informing. The Last Hour succeeds in this perfectly, injecting so much accessible information and detail into a novel that is intensely exciting, all packed into a 24-hour period. Harry Sidebottom’s recent and superb Throne of the Caesars trilogy looked at a year that shook the Roman empire to its core. The Last Hour evokes ancient Rome in an entirely different way, focusing on just a few hours in such a narrow space, as it affects such a small group of people. And yet it informs every bit as much. Life in ancient Rome comes alive in The Last Hour and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III

I’m delighted to post below a taster from The Last Hour to celebrate the novel’s publication this week.


Another scream echoed up the long passageway, then ended abruptly.

Every breath hurt. Sweat was running off Ballista. Would the stairs ever end? It was like some infernal punishment in myth.

A final corner, and there was the door. All the gods let it be unlocked.

The door opened outwards. Ballista closed it behind him, and leant against it as he fought to regain his breath. Forty-three winters on Middle Earth; too long for this exertion.

The roof garden was gently domed, like a low hill. It rose to where a plinth supported a more than life-sized statue of the Emperor Hadrian in a triumphal chariot drawn by four horses. The terrible storms of the last several days had passed, but the air smelt of rain. The stones underfoot were still wet.

There had to be another way down. Ballista pushed himself off the door, set off up the path to the top.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon. It cast long shadows from the cypress trees, dappled where they were festooned with vines or ivy. Less than an hour until darkness.

Ballista circled the base of the statuary. No door, no trapdoor. Nothing. There had to be another way down. A passageway for gardeners, plants, servants. He looked around wildly.

Under the cypresses the garden was thickly planted with fruit trees and flower beds. Paths radiated out. There were hedges, potted plants, heavy garden furniture, small fountains, more statues. The service access would be carefully hidden. The elite did not want to see slaves when they were enjoying the views. There was no time to search.

Ballista thought of the light wells. No, even if he could find one of them, it would be too narrow, offer no handholds. Another thought came to him. He took the path down to the east.

There was a thin wooden rail above a delicate and ornamental screen along the edge of the garden, with yet more statues at intervals. Ballista did not look at the city spread out beyond the river, barely glanced at the swollen waters of the Tiber at the foot of the monument. He gripped the sculpted marble leg of Antinous, the doomed boy, loved by Hadrian. A Roman might have been troubled by the association. As heir to the different world view of the north, such omens did not bother Ballista. He had a head for heights, and leaned out as far as he dared over the rail.

The cladding of the Mausoleum was white marble. The blocks were so artfully fitted together that there was barely a discernible line where they joined. No hope of a finger hold. Seventy foot or more of smooth, sheer wall down to the base, after that ledge perhaps another forty foot down to the narrow embankment and the river. No way to climb down.

Ballista ran back to the head of the stairs, opened the door. The men were nearing the top.


Caligula by Simon Turney

Orion | 2018 (8 March) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Caligula by Simon TurneyThere are few people in more danger in Tiberius’s Rome than the children of Germanicus. Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Tiberius, was Rome’s greatest general of the day, an emperor in waiting. But he is dead and his sons are Tiberius’s heirs while the daughters are pawns in marriage. To be an heir to Tiberius is a dangerous thing, especially with the emperor tucked away on his luxurious island retreat of Capri, having left the business of Rome’s protection to Sejanus, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, master of an army. Sejanus hates the children of Germanicus. He wishes them reduced in number. The youngest are sent to Capri to live under the nose of an insane emperor in his villa of games, superstitions and murder. There we meet the youngest child, Livilla, sister of Gaius, a boy known to friends and history alike as Caligula. And it’s Caligula’s story that Livilla tells.

Although the Roman senate stopped short of damning Caligula’s memory after his death, thanks to the influence of his uncle and successor Claudius, history has not been kind to Caligula and the stories of his dissolute life and rule have been hard for authors to resist (I’ll never forget John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the TV adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius), but was Caligula really as mad as many would have it? And if he was a monster, was he born that way or was he another victim of Rome’s extraordinary imperial family and its ambitious generals and politicians? This is a topic that can’t fail in my eyes and, after a recent spate of novels re-examining or celebrating the monster that was Nero, it’s good news indeed to now find his uncle Caligula in the spotlight.

The figure of Caligula is undoubtedly a gift to an author but it must be done right. And Simon Turney has done a magnificent job of stripping away the infamy and propaganda to reassemble a fresh image of Caligula, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, his adoring youngest sister Livilla. But that is just the beginning. We meet Caligula as a boy, living at the edge of a lethal court, in daily risk of exile or execution, but with an innate and ingenious talent for survival. The boy we meet at the beginning is not the man we leave at the end and it’s this transformation which is so immensely gripping and fascinating, and original.

It’s easy to focus on Caligula because he is a tour de force throughout this novel, an exceedingly charismatic and gifted individual, who, at least in the early days, is very easy to like. It’s spellbinding watching him grow. But there are other people to watch here, too, including Livilla who herself is altered by events. Her story is every bit as compelling as her brother’s and it made me weep. We grow particularly close to Livilla because she is our eyes and ears. She is often a secret witness, hiding in gardens, behind curtains, around corners. Little escapes Livilla. It’s what she must do with the knowledge she learns that causes her the most pain.

Another character who instantly grabbed is Agrippina, sister to Livilla and Caligula, and perhaps as notorious to history as her brother. This is Nero’s mother in waiting and we all know what happened to her. She is shocking! There’s no rewriting of history here – Agrippina is a nasty piece of work and there can be no excuses. She is, as a result, a page stealer.

Caligula is a beautifully structured and developed novel. I must say that I was surprised that the author picked a female voice for his narrator but he has done a wonderful job in making her feel real and it was an inspired idea to reveal Caligula through her eyes. This is a Caligula I can believe in. It’s a fine psychological portrait of a damaged man, someone who could have been great, who wanted to be great, but instead became a devil. But it also paints a fabulous picture of Rome and Capri. It’s both beautiful and terrifying and Capri in particular is absolutely horrifying, the stuff of nightmares. It’s hardly surprising that Caligula corrupts in such an appalling and hideous manner. It’s a mesmerising, haunting and disturbing transformation and it literally gave me nightmares.

Caligula is an enormous achievement and most definitely one to be proud of. And what a beautiful cover! It’s great news to learn that this is the first in a series and it has a fantastic title – The Damned Emperors! Irresistible! I can’t wait to see who is next for the Turney treatment.

Other reviews and features
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
‘Writing historical locations’ – a guest post

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

Constable | 2018 (2 March) | 392p | Review copy | Buy the book

Julius Caesar, recently awarded the title of Dictator of Rome for life, is shortly to leave Rome to fight the Parthian Empire. Surely this will be a campaign every bit as glorious as the one he led in Gaul. Caesar intends to leave Rome tightly bound to him and so he will hold a grand session in the Senate on the Ides of March. More Senators and officials will be sworn in before they all proceed to vote in favour of a series of laws that Caesar is determined to introduce. But Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and her soothsayer are desperate for him to stay away from the Senate. They have foreseen that Caesar is in terrible danger. But from what?

The grand orator Cicero likewise thinks that something may be afoot. He calls in his old friend Gordianus the Finder to investigate. Gordianus, now in his sixties, has retired from a life of solving murder and crime but this is no time to rest. Caesar tells him that Gordianus is to be made one of the new Senators on the Ides of March. Gordianus has just four days to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to rip the head from the body of Rome.

I have enjoyed Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa Gordianus the Finder series for over 25 years and now with The Throne of Caesar the series draws to a close. When a well-loved series ends, it inevitably causes conflicted feelings. I was so glad to see another book – it’s been a fair old while since The Triumph of Caesar, the last of the series (if you exclude the three recent prequels exploring Gordianus’ adventures and travels as a young man), and The Throne of Caesar was most welcome. Though there is a sadness at saying goodbye. But, if Gordianus has to retire, then he’s picked the right case with which to close an illustrious career – the most infamous murder in Roman history.

Of course, we all know what happened on the Ides of March in 44 BC. But that takes away nothing from this very clever and beautifully-written novel. Steven Saylor presents events day by day from 10 March until the end of the month. He uses his imminent Senatorial promotion as an excuse to meet with some of Rome’s most powerful men, ostensibly to ask them where he should buy the necessary toga, and the result is a thoroughly gripping and insightful portrait of Roman politics and society during these portentous days.

Gordianus the Finder is a great observer of human nature and the personalities he’s confronted with here couldn’t be more charismatic and fascinating. Caesar himself is a dominant presence and I loved the times we spend with him. This is just a snapshot, we’re only given a few days, but the power of his personality, even when at home in Rome or in the garden of a visiting Cleopatra, shines through. As Gordianus moves from house to house, we observe so much about Roman elite society quite apart from its politics, including the arts, philosophy, families and religion. I was completely immersed in every aspect of the novel, including the moments when Caesar and his companions listen gripped to poets reading their latest verse.

I also really enjoyed the moments spent with Gordianus’ own family. He regularly reflects on how he has the most happy and harmonious of homes and this is so good to learn. We want nothing but good in the life of Gordianus and his wonderful wife.

The climax of the novel is, not surprisingly, the Ides of March, and the events of that day and its immediate aftermath are brilliantly depicted. We are spared none of the horror and the desperation, and the overpowering sense felt by all that these are moments that will live through all history. But this is a Gordianus the Finder novel and therefore there are surprises in store. Not everything is as it seems.

Although The Throne of Caesar is the thirteenth and last of the series, it actually stands alone very well indeed. So if you haven’t read the others, this won’t matter, but afterwards you may well want to go back and see what else Gordianus got up to in the world of Caesar, Pompey, Cleopatra and Cicero.

I think it’s quite possible that The Throne of Caesar is the best of all Steven Saylor’s novels and I can’t imagine a better ending for the Rome Sub Rosa series. We’re given hints that other members of the family may be following in Gordianus’ investigative footsteps but whether those are pursued in other novels or not The Throne of Caesar celebrates the end of the glorious career of Gordianus the Finder. The novel also depicts so brilliantly this most significant event in Rome’s history. Rome will never be the same again.

Other review
Wrath of the Furies

‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger

This week, G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishes the US edition of The Hunger by Alma Katsu. While I’m looking forward to posting a review of the novel for its publication in the UK in early April, I’m delighted to join in the celebrations for the American publication with a guest post by Alma Katsu on the historical background and inspiration for this remarkable and terrifying tale of the Donner Party, based on a true story.

But first a bit of what the novel is about:

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

‘History and The Hunger‘ by Alma Katsu

I love writing historical fiction. Marrying fact and fiction makes for something especially pleasing to read, I think, something that melds the familiar and comforting to the spicy and unknown.

There’s a challenge there, though. It’s difficult to know how familiar your readers are with the historical event in question. You don’t want to bore readers by telling them what they already know, but you don’t want to assume too much and risk frustrating the reader.

When I first started working on THE HUNGER, I wasn’t sure how much was generally known about the Donner Party. These are the basic facts: two families, the Donners and the Reeds, set out from Springfield, Illinois on April 15, 1846, heading to Independence, Missouri, the “jumping off” point for the trip west. They travel with a much larger party until the split in the trail known as the “parting of the ways” where the Donners and Reeds opt to take the new Hastings Cut-off that promises to shave 300 miles off the trip. They have no way of knowing that the cut-off is little more than a notion in the mind of Lansford Hastings, or that Hastings is a bit of a charlatan, trying to lure settlers to California in order to wrestle the territory away from Mexico.

The Donner Party decides to try their luck. They would not have made this choice if they knew there are over a thousand inhospitable miles ahead. They know the mountain passes will close off once the snow starts, and snow comes early at the higher elevations.

Which is how they come to find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the mountain pass when the snow starts falling and refuses to stop. They try to make it up to the pass but are immobilized. Snow is piled over their heads, over the roofs of their makeshift cabins. They have almost no supplies. Only a few head of livestock survived the punishing trip. There will be no escape until the spring thaw but no one knows when that will be.

There were 90 pioneers at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek when the snow started falling; only 50 will survive.

But there’s a bigger historical context that I tried to capture in The Hunger. In many ways, the story of those pioneers is the story of America. The Donner Party’s story is one of immigrants, of people looking for a better life. But it’s also the story of America’s restless expansionist spirit, the country’s willingness to leave homes and kin, uproot themselves, load their possessions into a wagon, and head into the unknown. Americans had been migrating to the west since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but travel to California was not yet at the epic levels of the Gold Rush and the West was largely uncharted territory. Today, we can only marvel at their confidence, traveling under these conditions with babies and children, the elderly and the sick. They let nothing stop them: some were in poor health, others traveled without wagon or oxen. Some had nothing more than a mule, a few even expected to make the two thousand-mile journey completely on foot.

Americans made the perilous journey because they believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were an exceptional people who were ordained by God to occupy the territory clear to the Pacific Ocean. By settling the West, Americans felt they were fulfilling a long-promised destiny. But it’s not as though this territory was free for the taking. That’s the darker side of America’s expansionist aspirations. Texas’ war for independence emboldened some Americans to think that California, too, could be prized away from Mexico. This was the real reason Lansford Hastings zealously promoted his cut-off: to lure more American settlers to the Mexican-owned territory and, eventually, force America to defend the interests of its citizens. And the darkness doesn’t stop there: trails cut through the middle of Indian Territory. You can’t discuss the Westward Migration without looking at the devastating effect it had on the Native American tribes residing in the Indian Territory. And lastly, it’s also the story of religious freedom. Mormons were starting to look West to build a community after violence had driven them out of Missouri and Illinois.

The Hunger is meant to be a cautionary tale. There are reasons nearly half the wagon party died, lessons we shouldn’t ignore. Some aspects were outside their control—the horrendous weather that winter, for one—but the group let themselves be divided by pettiness and class differences. They let themselves be fooled by businessmen who valued personal profit over human lives. They selected the wrong man to be their leader and refused to listen to the people among them who knew better. They paid for their hubris, yes, but you only need to look around to realize that things haven’t changed that much today, 170 years later.

And this is the true lesson of the Donner Party.

US edition by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (published 6 March)
UK edition by Bantam Press (published 5 April)

Alma Katsu: Before she started writing novels, Alma Katsu was both a music journalist and an analyst for the likes of CIA and RAND. She has pounded the halls of the Pentagon, been in the West Wing of the White House, and interviewed rock stars. Her novels—The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent (which, oddly enough, have nothing to do with music or national security)—have been published in more than a dozen languages.

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2018 (1 March) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is April 1219 and William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, is nearing the end of his long and eventful life. As he lies in his home, surrounded by his family, William sends one of his knights to his property in Wales to retrieve the silks that he brought home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem many years before. William always intended to be buried in them. And so now his thoughts drift to that adventure, to his pilgrimage which was conducted as a promise to, and in the name of, William’s master – Henry, the Young King and eldest son and heir of Henry II, who died with a stain on his soul. Only William could wipe it clean.

In 1183 William Marshal was in his prime, celebrated for his military prowess and lauded for his chivalric values – a true and great knight indeed. But he was still a landless knight, dependent on the patronage of others, especially the family of Henry II and the imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When the Young King makes William swear an oath to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his behalf, to lie his cloak before Christ’s tomb, there is nothing to stop William from leaving England behind. And what an adventure it was.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight is one of my all time favourite novels – it is the perfect tale of a medieval knight and none were greater than William Marshal. And nobody in my opinion brings the medieval world to life in full colour like Elizabeth Chadwick. I was so pleased to hear that she was returning to William’s story. This time, though, the focus is on the three years that William spent on pilgrimage. And, apart from the fact that he went, very little is known about this period of his life, which gives Elizabeth Chadwick free rein to use her imagination drawing on her enormous insight and knowledge of the medieval period. The result is a gloriously exciting depiction of some of medieval Europe’s dangerspots, where peril lay around almost every corner and in every town, and most particularly in Constantinople and Jerusalem. The chapters set in Constantinople are such a traumatic highlight of the novel!

The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was extraordinary, alive with the most astonishing and disturbing personalities, all a gift to fiction, especially the Leper King Baldwin, Guy de Lusignan, the Patriarch and his mistress, the beautiful and charismatic Paschia de Rivieri. It’s wonderful watching William Marshal interacting with all of these people, a witness to the danger of the times, the threat of Saladin, the deception and the plotting. Marshal throws himself into the heart of it all, as you’d expect, and has experiences to last a lifetime. Much of this is speculation, but the result is a grand romance of chivalry, intrigue, violence and passion.

The relationship that I probably enjoyed the most here is that between William and his younger brother Ancel. Little is known about Ancel but Elizabeth Chadwick brings him to such life. I loved these sections. Despite their military prowess, both brothers are shown to be sensitive and refined, the model of knightly values, and so it’s extremely easy to fall in love with them. But we know how this novel must end – it’s set on William’s deathbed after all – and so there are also scenes of great tenderness between William and his wife, children and grandchildren. Expect emotion.

Elizabeth Chadwick has such a gift in the way she surrounds her reader in the past. All the little details of daily life in the Middle Ages are made solid. This is more of a romance than the other William Marshal novels. Much of it is set in an exotic, strange land so far from home and this adds an air of something that touches on fantasy. But, in my favourite sections, it is grounded with these extraordinary historical figures – the story of the Leper King is incredible and extremely distressing. His court’s political intrigue is so fascinating, made even more dangerous because we know Saladin is just waiting for his moment to seize the Holy City. It’s a great setting for William Marshal, who begins as an observer but is soon at the centre of affairs. There’s a strong sense that this is William’s last fling before he returns to England, marriage and ennoblement. He’s determined to make the most of it as he’s let off the historical leash by an author who understands inside out this best of men and the age in which he lived.

Other reviews
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing

Palatine by L.J. Trafford

Karnac Books | 2015 | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

Palatine by LJ TraffordIt is AD 68 and Nero has much more on his mind than simply ruling the Empire that is so lucky to have him. For one thing, Nero fancies himself in love with the perfect specimen of Roman womanhood, a new Poppaea (to replace the one that Nero kicked to death), who just happens to be a eunuch called Sporus. But Nero needn’t worry because while he spends his energy on love and the arts, his private secretary Epaphroditus can look after the dull business of rule, backed up by the two Praetorian Prefects (known as ‘the drunk one’ and ‘the sober one’). But the sober Prefect Sabinus has had enough of the degeneracy of Nero’s court and is keen to take advantage of the rumblings of rebellion coming from elsewhere in the empire, particularly Gaul. The powerful are beginning to shuffle for position, including Galba. It’s only a matter of time.

Palatine is the first in L.J. Trafford’s Four Emperors series, that period of civil war and short reigns that marked the fall of Nero and the ensuing troubled months. Nero is gold dust for authors and clearly L.J. Trafford enjoyed every minute of capturing Nero on paper. And here he is at his dissolute best or worst, depending on your point of view. There’s no end of maidens (senators’ daughters) to deflower and people to murder. At one point he looks for an assassin to do one of his jobs but specifies that he has to be able to speak Greek so that he can recite verse to his victim before killing him. This is Nero at his most deranged and he has turned madness into an artform.

What I enjoyed about Palatine, though, is that much of the events unfold through the eyes and experiences of slaves, servants and the most vulnerable, such as prostitutes. Even Sporus, the enthusiastic eunuch, is allowed his moments as a normal human being caught up in circumstances beyond his control, a young man with friends who love him. Then there is Philo, Epaphroditus’s secretary, who has recently been freed but still serves his master. But now he lives outside the Palace and has to cope with looking after himself without the Palace feeding him, clothing him and putting a roof over his head. Freedom is good but it comes at a cost. And it doesn’t free him from the savagery of those whose job it is to keep slaves in their place with brutality and sexual predation. We are given a fascinating portrait of servitude in Nero’s court in all its shapes and sizes. I really enjoyed this perspective.

Palatine is a tale of salacious goings on and there is a gossipy feel to its style that I found overpowering and too rich at times. There are some moments that made me laugh at loud, there is wit in abundance here, but for me this was overshadowed by the relish with which this decadent court is depicted. There are scenes of utter cruelty but they are lost among the rollicking. This, though, is a matter of personal taste and I can understand why many would find the style of Palatine so enjoyable and fun to read. This is a history and muddle of conspiracies that Suetonius would have revelled in and, if that’s your sort of thing, then you will love it.

For me, though, it’s the descriptions of life below stairs in the imperial court that stands out in Palatine. But we can be in no doubt of what drives everyone – while some must struggle just to stay alive and sane, for others it’s time for change. Nero has to go.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (22 February) | 294p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul DavidIt is 1888 and Major George ‘Zulu’ Hart has returned to England a war hero, decorated with the Victoria Cross. He brings with him his wife and their young child. One would think that they would be ready for a well-deserved rest, but George wishes he were on another fighting commission abroad, and he is well aware that he and his wife are far too profligate for his salary. So he has no choice but to accept his new mission, as unusual as it may seem. Hart is asked to keep the Prince of Wales’s son Prince Albert, known to everyone as Eddy, safe for a year. The Prince, a cavalry officer in George’s regiment, a charismatic, handsome and likeabale man, lives on the edge of scandal. He and his friends frequent London’s male brothels and are seen out and about in Whitechapel, one of London’s most poverty-stricken areas. It’s only a matter of time before Eddy’s behaviour brings disgrace on the royal family.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Irish nationalism is on the rise and its threat has reached London. Prince Eddy is a target for Irish assassins. And the streets of London are restless. A killer is slaughtering Whitechapel’s female prostitutes in the worst of ways. He is known as Jack the Ripper and the rumours surrounding his identity are growing out of control. Major George Hart has no choice but to suspect the worst.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders is the third ‘Zulu’ novel by military historian Saul David but this stand alone novel represents a bit of a change for the author. There are no battles to fight here, no recognisable enemy. Instead, what we have is a stand alone Victorian murder mystery featuring a military hero who now has to play detective but must also play a social game. This story also gives George a chance to find out more about the Duke of Cambridge, the man he believes to be his father, and this adds a welcome personal element to the novel’s development.

The relationship between George and the Prince is arguably the most appealing aspect of the novel. There is an etiquette of behaviour demanded by the Prince’s royal position but there is also the matter of army rank – George Hart outranks Prince Eddy and there is a real tension from this that I found fascinating. The novel moves between different worlds – the regulated army, the police investigation into the Ripper murders, the stews of Whitechapel, its brothels and also the pubs where men meet to plot harm. The most vividly depicted are the streets of Whitechapel. The fact that we know what happened to Jack the Ripper’s latest victims, and who they were, adds foreboding.

The investigation into the identity of Jack the Ripper forms the heart of the novel and there are some intriguing suggestions made. I did guess the outcome as presented here very early on and so I’m not sure that it works especially well as a whodunnit but the novel does capture well the squalor of Whitechapel and the constraints of the police investigation.

I found much of the novel rather cold and clinical. I never warmed to George Hart. His family plays very little part in the proceedings and the other relationships in the novel are emotionless. There is a major crime in the book, apart from the Jack the Ripper murders, which is truly horrifying and shocking and yet it’s almost brushed aside.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders takes as its subject one of the most infamous and terrible crimes of the Victorian age and adds to it the rather less well known activity of the Irish Fenians as well as the scandalous behaviour of the Queen’s eldest grandson. Major George Hart is thrown into the midst of it all. Possibly there is too much plot for a relatively short novel to juggle but it certainly deals with a fascinating time and raises some interesting themes about Victorian society, morality, politics and murder.