HarperCollins | 2018 (5 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Great Fire of London has left much of the city in soot-drenched ruin, with many of its inhabitants displaced and eager to rebuild. Greedy landlords are quick to take advantage. Now is the time to knock down the tenements and rebuild modern housing for the rich. But the tenants are fighting back. The battleground is the Fire Court, the place in which judges decide London’s future. There is a great deal of money at stake and murder ensues. James Marwood’s father is one of the first to die, falling under the wheels of a cart, but not before this old and unwell man told his son how, during one of his nighttime rambles, he had come across the body of a murdered woman lying in one of the rooms of the Fire Court.
James Marwood is clerk to Joseph Williamson, a prominent official in the court of Charles II. Marwood’s role is to investigate, ideally to prove wrongdoing is being committed by Williamson’s rivals at court. But Marwood becomes dangerously obsessed with following the distorted, rambling memories of his dead father, the thread that will lead him to the murderer lurking at the heart of the Fire Court. But this is no straightforward mystery. Many are ensnared within it, caught up in its false leads, including young Cat Lovett, a woman that Marwood once rescued and now lives as Jane Hakesby, a servant of her distant cousin, the architect Simon Hakesby. Never have architects been as busy as they are now. But the rebuilding is being done at the cost of great misery and worry to many. All levels of London’s society are implicated in one fashion or another. James Marwood will have to risk everthing he has to unravel the truth.
The Fire Court follows on from The Ashes of London, a novel set during the Great Fire itself. Now we are dealing with the aftermath, in all of its shapes and forms. If you haven’t read The Ashes of London, then you’ll still enjoy The Fire Court as a stand alone novel but you’ll have missed out on the history of Marwood and Cat. These are marvellous characters, dancing around each other, and it’s wonderful to meet them again. Cat’s predicament continues, her position is still unsafe, whereas Marwood still has to deal with the inconvenience and uncertainty of working for two masters at war with one another. It’s time for James Marwood to make some difficult decisions.
The case at the heart of The Fire Court is pleasingly complex, with a succession of fascinating and memorable suspects and victims walking through the burnt remains of the city. We meet men and women from all walks of life but the novel is particularly intriguing in its depiction of women, many of whom are vulnerable whatever their social rank and wealth. Jemima, Lady Limbury, really stood out for me, as did the horrifying household in which she endures.
Andrew Taylor is so good at setting a scene, whether it’s outside in London’s blackened streets, or inside its houses and courts. All are richly and vividly described. I love the mix of colour and vitality set against the black and grey of poverty and soot. We learn to feel much more for James Marwood in this second book. Even his master Williamson begins, we suspect, to value his worth and his sacrifice. Marwood is a quiet hero and he displays true courage in this novel. He brought me to the edge of my seat and I really worried for him.
This is such a great series. The Civil War continues to haunt people and events. Both Marwood and Cat have much to atone for in the eyes of the court as they pay for the sins of their fathers. This adds a fascinating level of potential intrigue. In The Fire Court we’re only given brief glimpses of the royal court but its influence spreads far and Marwood cannot escape its plots. I particularly enjoyed learning here about how London began to rebuild in the weeks after the fire. Fire continues as a theme in this novel. It’s never far away.
In my opinion, The Fire Court is even better than its excellent predecessor. Its characters are fully developed and its portrait of 1660s’ London and society makes for an immersive read. One senses that the road ahead for Marwood and Cat is far from straight and I can’t wait to see where it takes them as well as witness how London is transformed through these post-fire months.
The Ashes of London