Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Fire by L.C. Tylor

Constable | 2017 (2 November) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fire by LC TylerIt is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is ablaze. Lawyer John Grey heads out into the smoke and flames to try and help. Almost everybody is going in the other direction, escaping with what they can carry while their houses burn. Grey finds a body with somebody hunched over it who flees as Grey approaches. But the corpse is no victim of the fire. He has been stabbed.

London is looking for somebody to blame and, as the fire dies down, rumours spread of French involvement. This is the last thing the royal court of Charles II wants. The court is suspected of Catholicism. If the French did start the fire then Charles and his brother the Duke of York would be given a hefty share of the blame. And then a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, is arrested, admitting to starting the fire and also stabbing his French accomplice to death. John Grey is more than a lawyer. He is also the agent of Lord Ardlington, the Secretary of State, and Ardlington despatches Grey to discover the truth. When he interviews Hubert he finds a man barely in possession of his wits, repeating details that he has been trained to say. It’s clear that this is the work of a conspirator’s plot. And as Grey and his friend Lady Pole trace the clues deep into the smoking ruins and along London’s busy river, it becomes clear that nobody is in more danger than they are.

Fire is the fourth novel in L.C. Tyler’s John Grey series and almost ten years have passed since the events of the first novel A Cruel Necessity, which was set in 1657 during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. The series, in my opinion, got off to a slow start with the first two books but in the third, The Plague Road, everything came together and the result was an exciting, well-plotted and brilliantly witty historical mystery. I’m delighted to say that Fire is every bit as good. This is fine writing and the tension and danger of the mystery is complemented by the humour of the narrative and dialogue. The novel is set during the Restoration, a time of wit and elegance, as well as sin and debauchery, and this mood is captured so well in these books. Fire made me laugh out loud more than once, something that doesn’t happen too often.

John Grey is a fascinating character with a history as convoluted as you’d expect in a society that is still picking up the pieces after the Civil War of the 1640s and the miserable Commonwealth of the 1650s. He’s in love with Lady Aminta Pole, whose background is as complicated as Grey’s, but real life – and scandal – keeps getting in the way. These two are very easy to like, although I can’t help feeling extra regard for Will, Grey’s poor clerk and servant who seems to spend much of his time as a go-between and has more sense in his head than almost everybody else in Grey’s world.

The mystery is such a good one and the setting in London’s smouldering ruins is richly evocative. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, its firefighters and their rather ungainly machines, river crossings and the camps that are set up to house the newly homeless and hungry. The idea that tourists flocked within mere days to look at the traditional starting place for the fire on Pudding Lane is an appealing one. This is a London crammed full of interesting personalities of all classes. This isn’t just a story about Charles II’s court. It covers all of London. And there in its middle is Grey who’s like a dog with a bone. When his teeth are dug in there’s no way he’ll let go.

Fire is a short novel – which is perhaps my only not entirely serious complaint – and it is put together perfectly. Not a word of its witty prose is wasted. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Fire of London and it’s hard to imagine anyone immersing me in these astonishing days with more skill and wit than L.C. Tyler. I can’t wait for the next.

Other reviews
A Masterpiece of Corruption
The Plague Road

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Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

Headline | (2017 (16 November) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

Day of the Caesars by Simon ScarrowIt is late AD 54 and the Emperor Claudius is dead. Rumours of murder are circulating around Rome but few dare to utter them outloud. His adopted son Nero now wears the purple, supported by his ambitious, dangerous mother Agrippina. But he needs little of her support – he’s every bit as lethal in his own right. Claudius’s own son, Britannicus, is in a very precarious situation indeed, not least because others look to him as a possible solution to the problem of Nero.

Cato and Macro have arrived back in Rome as heroes after their mission in Hispania. Back within the Praetorian camp, they are positioned better than most to hear the rumblings spreading across the army at the turn of political events, and the lack of their promised gold. Cato, though, has other things on his mind – building a relationship with his young toddler son, Lucius – while Macro has distractions of his own. But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s emperor. They always have jobs in mind for Cato and Macro – and they’re never pretty.

Day of the Caesars is the sixteenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s hugely popular Eagles of the Empire series and it is always good news when Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro return. I’ve loved these two for years and have followed their exploits across the empire with pleasure. This time they’re back in Rome but Rome has never been more dangerous. But Rome is home for Cato and Macro and so we watch them try to put their private lives back together again after months away, finding some comfort, while at the same time we worry for them as the murky and complex world of politics and conspiracies threatens them and their plans from every side.

It’s difficult to imagine a more dangerous period in Roman history than the middle of the 1st century AD. I’ve enjoyed several novels about Nero over the last year and it’s rather refreshing that, in Day of the Caesars, no apologies are made for Nero – he’s as nasty and terrifying as history would have him. There is a scene early on which sets the tone for Nero and while I found it repulsive it certainly achieved its aim in summing Nero up. This is a man to hate. But this is Roman politics and, as such, there’s little to admire in any of the factions and nothing is straightforward. I enjoyed the tangled plot that Simon Scarrow has constructed here. It’s tense but it’s also thrilling and it has the whole of Rome in its grip.

This is most definitely historical fiction. Liberties are taken with events and with historical figures. But that matters little because this is the story of Cato and Macro – two fictional characters at the centre of events that are constructed around them. But the picture of the city of Rome itself is so well drawn, particularly its depiction of the city’s lethal poorer tenements. As usual, though, I have some issues with the author’s portrayal of women – none of the women featured here do well out of it.

In some ways, Day of the Caesars feels like a stepping stone novel. It informs us of what is going on in Rome while moving Cato and Macro from Spain to their next posting. As a result, I don’t think this is the best of the series but it’s certainly hugely entertaining, exciting and thrilling. Time spent with Cato and Macro is always time well spent and now that the sixteenth is read, I’ll look forward to the seventeenth which, just like all of the others, will go straight to the top of my reading pile.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2015 | 339p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly GriffithsIt is August 1950 and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is about to get an unpleasant surprise. Two large black cases have been recovered from the left luggage at Brighton’s railway station, reported as suspicious for their nasty stench. On opening them, Edgar is confronted with the head and legs of a woman sawn into three. The middle section soon follows but this black case, very disturbingly, is sent directly to Edgar. And there are notes as well, sent from a Mr Hugh D. Nee. The dead girl was clearly murdered in a way reminiscent of that famous magic trick – the Zig Zag Girl. This is just the sort of trick that Edgar’s wartime comrade and friend, and now a celebrated magician, the great Max Mephisto, would perform. And the coincidences don’t end there – Max is currently performing in Brighton and it appears that this poor girl was once Max’s glamorous assistant. It’s all about to get very personal for Edgar and Max.

I recently read and reviewed The Vanishing Box, the fourth mystery in the Stephens and Mephisto series by Elly Griffiths. I fell in love with it, so much so that I immediately bought the others in the series and now I’ve gone back to the beginning. It’s in The Zig Zag Girl that we’re first introduced to Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto who have met up again for the first time since they served together in the war in the curious and secret unit, the Magic Men. The Second World War still casts a shadow over Edgar, Max and the others in the Magic Men unit. And in that shadow answers might be found.

The historical setting in this series is perfectly realised. I love the portrayal of Brighton during the 1950s with its theatres, boarding houses, pubs and (possibly haunted) police station. These are the days in which variety performers are beginning to worry about the future in a television world, but the thrill and the skill of magicians, dancers, comedians, ventriloquists, snake charmers, performing dogs and all those other colourful personalities of the stage still lives and Elly Griffiths captures it all brilliantly. I love all of the historical details, the social codes, the old-fashioned policing, the almost theatrical suspense and danger of the case, the glamour of the theatre and the austerity of the post-war years. It’s riveting.

I love Edgar and Max. It isn’t easy deciding which I love more but I think it could be Edgar. Elly Griffiths paints his character beautifully, building it up over the chapters, as we learn his history, feel his moods, sadness and hope. He’s truly wonderful. And he and Max make such a fine partnership. Little builds a relationship like fighting together in war and they do feel like brothers. In this novel I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the surviving members of the Magic Men. They’re each very different but all linked with insoluble ties. And the little touches of humour, intermingling with the feelings of sadness and regret, are irresistible.

It’s not often that I fall for a series as fast and as deeply as this one. Smoke and Mirrors is the next in the series and you can expect a review of it very soon indeed.

Other reviews
The Vanishing Box
The Chalk Pit (Ruth Galloway series)

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2017 (2 November) | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Vanishing Box by Elly GriffithsIt is the winter of 1954 and a young flower seller, Lily, has been found murdered in her room in a Brighton boarding house. She has been arranged by the killer so that she matches almost completely a famous painting’s portrayal of the death of Lady Jane Grey. She has been dressed in a white gown, she is blindfolded and her arm reaches out for the execution block on which she must place her head. DI Edgar Stephens has never seen the like before. But it appears that two other young ladies in the same house are actresses currently appearing in Brighton’s Hippodrome Theatre. And they, along with a few other women, perform each night in a ‘living tableaux’ – almost naked, except for a few strategically placed props and feathers, they reenact famous historical scenes, such as the death of Cleopatra. Edgar is not a man to believe in such coincidences.

In the very same show, Edgar’s friend and wartime comrade Max Mephisto is top of the bill along with his daughter Ruby – they are a magician’s double act and, such is their fame and skill, they have attracted the attention of TV producers, even Hollywood. The significance of this show is lost on no-one. And neither is the horror of poor Lily’s fate, especially when it is shortly followed by another death. This time the victim comes from the living tableaux troop itself. Everyone at the theatre is suspect. This isn’t easy for Edgar, not least because of his engagement to Ruby.

The Vanishing Box is the fourth novel in Elly Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto series and I am staggered that this is the first one I’ve read. I’m a big fan of the author’s contemporary Ruth Galloway detective series but, for some reason, I’d avoided the Mephisto books. I think this might be because of the the title of the series. I thought it was something to do with carnivals and magic (subjects I fear) but I was so wrong. Mephisto is a theatrical magician but he is firmly grounded in reality, as is Edgar Stephens. In fact, we’re transported back to the fascinating early 1950s, a time still recovering from the loss and hardship of World War II. The theatre is an escape. It offers glamour and hints of sin, a new reign has begun. There is optimism but also regret and nostalgia. Stephens and Mephisto both carry burdens on their shoulders and they are compelling.

In some ways this novel could be described as cosy crime and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no criticism. I love this sort of mystery and its setting in a bygone time. It reminds me in some ways of an Agatha Christie detective novel but that’s largely because of the period in which it’s set. just as police technology was very different in those days, the police force is also as affected by manners and social mores as the rest of society, and this is especially seen in the character of DS Emma Holmes. I really, really liked Emma. But there is something so wonderfully old-fashioned about her character and that of Edgar Stephens – or, not so much old-fashioned, as from a different time. I love it.

The nature of the crime is also from another time. There’s no excessive blood or gore. It’s stylised and evocative. The relationships in the novel drive on the story as much as the clues do. The setting of Brighton certainly adds to the mood as does the theatricality of the characters and the crimes. It’s all completely engrossing and beautifully arranged with period clothing, manners, attitudes and theatre, with a little splash of romance and sin thrown in to add a little tension.

Elly Griffiths writes beautifully and the characters she creates are full of colour and life. I had no desire to put The Vanishing Box down and read in two sittings. I have also made sure that I now have the other books in the series to enjoy. I might be about to read them backwards in order but I don’t think that will matter. Any future novels will go to the top of my reading pile for sure. I am so glad I read this!

Other review
The Chalk Pit

Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2017, Pb (2 November) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulOn 31 August 1997 Alex proposes to Rachel during their romantic break in Paris. Everything seems perfect until their taxi takes them down into an underpass by the Seine. An accident has happened only moments before. It’s surrounded by photographers. When Alex and Rachel go to offer their help, they are shocked to learn that in the smashed car is none other than Princess Diana. All bedlam breaks loose.

In 1911 Mary Kirk is about to meet a new girl at Miss Charlotte Noland’s summer camp for girls in Virginia. When Wallis Warfield, striking and witty, walks in the door, Mary has no idea that Wallie is to become her closest friend for many years. Together they will share so much, even love for the same man, as Wallis’s glamour (and Mary’s wealth) steers them through ever more influential social circles on both sides of the Atlantic. History tells us what lies in store for Wallis Simpson (as she becomes known) but Mary will play a vital role in the lives of Wallis and Ernest Simpson and in the romance played out between Wallis and the man they call Peter Pan – the Prince of Wales.

In The Secret Wife, Gill Paul combined past and present perfectly to tell the story of the Romanov daughters and the possible fate of one of them, Grand Duchess Tatiana. In Another Woman’s Husband, Gill Paul uses the same technique, with every bit as much skill and appeal, to present the extraordinary life of Wallis Simpson while also following a (fictional) link with another woman who played such a key role in the royal history of 20th-century Britain: Diana, Princess of Wales.

Diana herself isn’t found in these pages. Instead, Rachel, who runs a successful shop selling vintage clothing and objects, finds herself compelled to discover what Diana was up to during her final twenty-four hours, a day that included a visit to the Paris home of the now dead Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Rachel’s fiancé Alex, a filmmaker, has his own reasons to become obsessed with Diana and this creates tension in their relationship.

But the true heart of this wonderful and engaging novel is with the story of Mary and Wallis. It is wonderful to follow them through the years, through marital turmoil, tragedies and glories. Their relationship feels so real. There are moments of such pettiness between them, selfishness and arrogance (Wallis Simpson was no wall flower), but they are always fascinating. Wallis isn’t someone you could ever describe as likeable – on the contrary – but Mary certainly is and it’s Mary who fills this book with so much light and warmth as well as sadness and bitterness. I liked Mary very much.

I love how Gill Paul writes. She has such a gift for dialogue. She sweeps me away with these stories of grand men and women, all set against such sumptuous backdrops. There is such a strong sense of time and place, a luxuriousness filled by the author’s knowledge and use of contemporary objects and, most of all, dresses and suits. It’s all so decorous and involving. Knowing the high stakes that Wallis was playing for certainly adds extra spice and tension. But above all else Another Woman’s Husband is the glamorous portrayal of a scandal that continues to fascinate. Hanging over it, though, is the shadow cast by the tragedy of Diana’s fate and this is dealt with by Gill Paul with great sensitivity and sadness. There is nothing about Another Woman’s Husband that doesn’t appeal to me – I gobbled it up and loved every single page.

You can read about the author’s use of historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband in this guest post.

Other reviews and features
The Secret Wife
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
Guest post – ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband‘ by Gill Paul

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2017 (2 November) | 547p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersIt is August 1348 and the pestilence has arrived in Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish has ridden to the demesne of Bradmayne with a cart of treasure – the dowry for his daughter Lady Eleanor whom he wishes to see wed to young Peter of Bradmayne. But Peter is the first to be stricken with the Black Death and others soon follow. Sir Richard returns home to Develish but his wife, the Lady Anne, won’t let him or his men in. For this could be the saving of their lives. The manor is sealed within its moated banks, the surfs all brought inside, their fields abandoned. Lady Anne turns society on its head by bringing forward Thaddeus Thurkell, a slave, as her steward. Confined and with limited food, trouble is inevitable but its source is not what one would expect.

In these times of limited travel and communication, the quarantined inhabitants of Develish have no idea what disease this is that is sweeping the land. They don’t know how far it has travelled or when it will end – if it even will. Is it God’s punishment? But when they look to their priest, no comfort can be found there. Sooner or later they must look beyond the moat for nourishment, for salvation.

I have read and loved every one of Minette Walter’s novels and I was thrilled to learn that not only was a new book on the way, after a sizeable length of time, but that it would also be historical fiction. And what a period Minette Walters has picked – the Black Death of 1348. But she doesn’t look at it from the point of view of the important and all-seeing, instead we view these terrible weeks from the perspective of one small community that can have no idea what is going on a mere five miles from their manor. This is a fine story, a worthy subject for Minette Walters’ talents, and I was engrossed immediately.

These are remarkable people, all the more so because the majority of them are serfs or slaves, people usually ignored by history and fiction. Lady Anne is the foundation on which their lives are built but it’s the serfs who must face the biggest questions of the Middle Ages – why has God cursed us? how do we survive when we’ve sworn an oath to own nothing? what is our fate after the Black Death, should we survive it? will the pestilence give us our freedom? The person who contradicts all attempts of the peasants to examine their condition is Lady Eleanor and she is relentless in her medieval righteousness. Bridging the two worlds are Thaddeus and Lady Anne and the two of them have the power to change others. Watching them do so, whether it’s through the skill of literacy or the experience of travel, is fascinating and completely absorbing. Overshadowing them all though is the legacy of Sir Richard. This might be a tale of the medieval period but it is alive and vivid with real people.

Their situation is diabolical. The descriptions of the plague and the reactions of men and women to it are powerful and shocking. The land has gone silent but for the sound of weeping. While some try to work out what the cause might be, others are overwhelmed. We can’t forget that these are very different times to our own. The Black Death might make no distinction between the classes but feudalism certainly does. And the descriptions of villages, hovels, inns, abandoned sheep, stricken manors and empty, rutted roads are every bit as striking and memorable as the scenes of plague.

The Last Hours paints a wonderful portrait of one small section of medieval England and it is populated by so many interesting and distinct people facing the worst time of their lives, of their age. And yet the Black Death was the catalyst for such change as well as uncertainty, religious questioning and tragedy. All of this is captured so brilliantly by Minette Walters in a medieval apocalyptic tale that is beautifully-written, atmospheric and always gripping.

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

Quercus | 2017 (19 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Village by Neil SpringAt the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the army evacuated, forcibly even, the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain. Its manor, houses and church were turned over to battle training, their walls scarred by bullets, the surrounding woodland pitted with bomb shells, everywhere the dangerous remnants of war. But every October, for one single day, the villagers are allowed to return to Imber to have a service in the church and pay their respects to their loved ones who lie buried in the graveyard and who, for every other day of the year, have been abandoned.

It is 1932 and the annual pilgrimage of the villagers to Imber is imminent. But the army has a problem. Its soldiers are terrified of the place and one man in particular has been turned mad by it. The seizure of Imber was a public relations disaster and the army is intent on avoiding any other attention, particularly as the villagers are more then ever set on reclaiming their former homes for good. Whatever it is that is frightening the soldiers must be explained and eradicated immediately. They call on the famous ghost hunter and ghost debunker Harry Price and his assistant Sarah Grey. But the relationship between the two has soured almost irretrievably and both, especially Sarah, have their own ghosts to face. But all of this must be played out in the deserted woods and dark buildings of Imber.

The Lost Village is the second Ghost Hunters novel by Neil Spring. I haven’t read Ghost Hunters and this mattered very little, although I expect it might have provided more information on the breakdown of Sarah’s relationship with Harry. But it was certainly easy to pick up on the mood between them, especially because our narrator is Sarah herself. Sarah begins her tale when she is an old woman looking back, her memories prompted by the discovery of a skeleton in Imber. We are instantly plunged into an atmosphere of fear, secrets and the unexplained. In Imber anything can happen but there is more to Sarah and the novel than just Imber as some of her initial experiences in London are every bit as terrifying to read.

I love a good ghost story and The Lost Village is deliciously teasing and frightening. Sarah is a wonderful narrator. She combines just the right amount of suspicion and superstition to make her seem a reliable yet open witness to these extraordinary events. Harry is another kettle of fish entirely. There is nothing reliable about Harry and yet, as the novel continues, I warmed to him much more than I expected.

This is a great story and it kept me guessing right to the end but the main strength of this enjoyable novel is its mood. Imber is the perfect subject for such a book and there is an element of truth behind it. Imber was indeed evacuated for army purposes but during a different war, the second, but by shifting it back to the first, the atmosphere of loss and tragedy is arguably increased.

As with most ghostly tales you have to bring a pinch of salt to them and I was certainly prepared to do that with The Lost Village. Apart from my one issue, that perhaps it is a little long, I thoroughly enjoyed my frightening experience in Imber and among its inhabitants.