Tag Archives: 17th century

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2021 (29 April) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorIt is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. When Abbot, one of the agents working for the Secretary of State Lord Arlington, is found dead, his colleague James Marwood is sent to retrieve confidential papers from his home. It is clear that some are missing, not that this is an easy house to search – it is stinking with rats, poisoned and dying in agony. The trail leads Marwood to the house of Mr Fanshawe where Abbot’s wife and her child, secretive and frightened, now live, alongside the talk of the town, a lion.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Haskins has been hired to design a grand poultry house for the King’s sister in France, a project of great interest to the Dutchman Van Riebeck. Cat finds herself caught in the centre of a disturbing business, one that straddles the English Channel. Marwood can only watch on in alarm before he, too, steps into the fray.

The Royal Secret is the fifth novel to feature James Marwood and the woman who is frequently on his mind, Cat Haskins (once Lovett). You don’t need to have read the others but I would really encourage you to do so as these are among the best historical novels you could possibly read. Their depiction of Charles II’s court during the Great Fire and in the succeeding years is superb. This book does mark a new beginning of sorts because Cat is now independent again. She is working for herself as an architect and is viewed as a curiosity by the people who employ her to design elaborate houses for chickens – it’s all the rage and all rather strange. That’s even before you consider the logistics of owning a pet lion and placing him in your stables.

The plot of The Royal Secret is pleasingly complex and immerses both Marwood and Cat in a situation that endangers them both, while also threatening the security of the realm and a King who is constantly under attack by foreign powers and spies closer to hand. It all gets rather personal when Cat finds herself mixing with the wrong people and all Marwood can do is watch on anxiously. It’s a great story, brilliantly told by Andrew Taylor, and I recommend you dive in. You’ll soon catch up if you haven’t read any of the other books.

It’s the portrayal of Charles II’s court and government that I found the most riveting. It’s a hotbed of personal ambition and envy, sin and disease, corruption and a rather odd idealism surrounding the nature of the crown after years of all too recent civil war and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Charles does make occasional charismatic appearances in this novel and in the others and they are always highlights. I absolutely love the way in which he is depicted. The men who work for him and conduct his business are far less appealing and Marwood is in the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of most of them.

There is extra glamour in The Royal Secret thanks to some extremely enjoyable scenes set in France where Cat must wait on the pleasure of Madame, Charles II’s sister. Equally fun to read are the chapters set aboard ships. It’s hard to be refined and noble when in the grip of seasickness. Complementing these personal stories is the intrigue as secret messages move between countries and agents. There’s also a menace at work and he makes for an interesting villain.

The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive, diseased, decaying court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland

Headline | 2021 (1 April) | 448p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Drowned City by KH MaitlandIt is 1606 and Bristol has been devastated by a catastrophic tidal wave. Many are dead, lost, orphaned or homeless. It’s a year after the Gunpowder Plot and James I and his adviser Robert Cecil are overcome with paranoia and fear. While Cecil worries about plotters, James is concerned about witches. Daniel Pursglove, who has special talents, is despatched to Bristol with two missions – to find the escaped Catholic conspirator Spero Pettingar, who is believed to be in Bristol, and to find out whether the terrible flood was an act of God or the work of witches.

Daniel finds a city wrecked by the flood, its citizens tested to their limit, susceptible to rumours of witchcraft, desperate to find somebody to blame. It’s not long before there are lynchings, Jesuit plots, and then Daniel discovers there is a murderer at work.

Karen Maitland writes beautifully about the people of the past and their lives and beliefs, especially in the medieval countryside. Now, writing under a slightly different name, she turns her attention to the early 17th century and a time that was more modern and knowable in some ways but was still alive with suspicion, fuelled to a large degree by the witch-hating James I. The starting point is compelling – the true story of the wave that destroyed much of Bristol – and here she puts it in a context of religious turmoil, persecution, conspiracy and suspicion.

The result is a richly evocative and atmospheric novel, gorgeously written, with attention given to the details of daily life as well as the devastation of the flood. This is a population that has been traumatised and we feel that keenly. We meet men, women and children in dire straits, including a young boy who must survive as best as he can, homeless and still hoping that he can find his family, that they won’t be lost to the sea. He is one of the survivors and they can be ruthless.

Daniel is an outsider who wanders through the city’s streets, suspected by many and a witness to some terrible things. There are some devastating scenes in The Drowned City as people find witches in ordinary places and treat them brutally. Daniel is there to uncover secrets, without knowing what those secrets are. He is caught in the middle of something that he can hardly understand but it constantly reminds him of a past he is trying to forget.

The Drowned City is beautifully written, with an emphasis on atmosphere, on Bristol and its people during this period of turmoil and persecution rather than on the plot, which meanders considerably. I did find this a little frustrating on occasion but it is certainly engrossing and involving. I loved the scenes featuring King James – especially the memorable scene when he visits the Tower of London to see his lion. This is fabulous! I’ve read a fair few novels featuring James over the years and this James is excellent (and fortunately long dead)!

Other reviews (writing as Karen Maitland)
The Vanishing Witch
The Raven’s Head

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (7 January) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The Smallest Man by Frances QuinnIt is 1625 and Nat Davy isn’t like other boys. No matter how much he gets his brother to try and stretch his legs and arms he will not grow. Reality hits when Nat visits a circus and sees a tiny woman on display who tells him to run. But it’s too late. When the circus contacts Nat’s father and makes him an offer, Nat is given a year to grow a little bit older before he too will become an exhibit on display. But, before the dreaded day comes, history takes matters into its own hands. The Duke of Buckingham buys the boy as a gift for Charles I’s young bride, Queen Henrietta Maria, and, before he knows it, the terrified and very, very small boy is served up to the Queen in a pie.

Nat Davy is a fictional character based on the figure of Sir Jeffrey Hudson, the Queen’s Dwarf. He is beautifully portrayed and we see the world – at its most poor and then at its wealthiest – through his eyes. And he sees the court from a unique perspective, not least because he becomes the confidant of the young French girl who is now Queen but, at the beginning of her marriage, feels so alone and unloved. Nat and the Queen are caught in the power games of Charles I and his favourite the Duke of Buckingham and, as Nat becomes a man and stays so tiny, he is viewed as more of an oddity than ever. However, over the years, Nat gathers a group of friends around him and, as the novel continues, his size is overshadowed by his stature as a man of the court.

The novel covers the whole of Charles I’s reign and that means that it also covers the Civil War, one of my favourite periods of English history. What makes this particularly unusual is that we view the conflict from the sidelines, as the Queen tries to gather funds and men for the King’s cause. I love how we see the relationship between the King and Queen evolve as they slowly fall in love. We also see how war has impacted the English countryside as people are caught up in a war that they initially think is happening at a distance. Families and friends are divided or they come together, putting relationships above political arguments that don’t interest them. It’s fascinating.

I loved The Smallest Man. It’s beautifully written. There is a love story element that I thought went on a little too long, but I really enjoyed this unusual story. We view all sides of English life through the figure of Nat, who experiences the lows and highs of 17th-century life, including war and exile. He endures real poverty, fear and danger, as well as coping with the sadness of the young Queen. It is a wonderful story, engrossing and full of historical details. I listened to the audiobook, which is stunningly read by Alex Wingfield. His voice truly becomes that of Nat. Nat is a fabulous character, offering an original and vivid perspective on Charles I’s land, court, war and death.

The Honey and the Sting by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1628 and sisters Hester, Melis and Hope must run and hide, taking with them Hester’s young son Rafe. Twelve years before Hester was raped by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and the favourite of James I. Rafe was the result and now Villiers wants the child, to do with nobody knows. The sisters hide at the country house of friends but they stand out – Melis is connected to nature in an intimate way, she has visions and feels an affinity with bees (as you’d expect – Melissa is Greek for bee*). She attracts suspicion. Hope is a young beauty. She attracts attention. Hester, meanwhile, must keep her son safe and hold her family together, supported by a soldier who has been sent by a relative to guard them. But this man is not who he says he is.

I am such a fan of this author’s historical fiction, whether writing as E.C. Fremantle or as Elizabeth Fremantle, and so a new novel is always a treat. I love her depiction of women of the past and their experiences in a society that is often unkind and unjust. This time the women are fictional characters but the man they have to deal with is not and George Villiers was an infamously nasty and corrupt man. His fate is well chronicled, which does reveal a little of what happens here, but I won’t make any mention of that in the review. But Villiers makes a perfect villain, although much of the menace here is provided not by him (who is largely absent) but by his henchman, Felton, a soldier whose mission is to kill the sisters and steal the boy. He is sinister and menacing and strange.

The sisters are wonderfully portrayed, especially Hester and Melis. Melis is an unusual girl and I love how she is depicted. Hester, though, is my favourite and it’s fitting that much of the novel is told in her own words, bringing us closer to her and her determination to keep her son safe. Hope is not a sensible girl and I couldn’t help becoming annoyed with her! The mystery in all this is Rafe, a character who only emerges gradually, to powerful effect. I think we need more of Rafe.

The Honey and the Sting is a beautifully written historical novel set at a time that I’m really interested in, during the days of the debauched, profligate and unpleasant Stuarts. The novel explores the effects of this society on those who are vulnerable, the women and the children, the beautiful and the innocent. Villiers exemplifies all that is rotten with the court, whereas through the sisters, especially Melis, we witness the purity of nature. It’s very well done. I’m keen to know where and when and to whom this author will take us next!

*Thanks to my Dad for the Greek reference!

Other reviews
Queen’s Gambit
Sisters of Treason
Watch the Lady
The Girl in the Glass Tower
The Poison Bed

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2018 (5 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

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.

Other review
The Ashes of London

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London | Andrew Taylor | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ashes of London by Andrew TaylorOn 4 September 1666 London had been burning for two days, the progress of the flames unstoppable, the rainless hot days unrelenting. And now the unimaginable is happening. The great cathedral of St Paul’s, which has dominated London for centuries, is on fire and all that the shocked inhabitants can do is stand and watch. But there is even more to the loss. As the roof falls and the floor collapses the treasures in the vault, books and papers hidden away for safe keeping from the fire, go up in flames. James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and now a government agent with a great deal to prove, is among the witnesses. When a boy runs towards the cathedral, it’s only Marwood’s quick thinking that saves his life. As he wraps his cloak around the boy, Marwood is given a shock. The boy is no boy but a young woman and she tears away into the crowd, taking Marwood’s cloak with her.

A body is found in the smouldering remains of the cathedral, killed not by fire but a knife, his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood has to wonder if there’s a connection between the corpse and the mysterious young woman. Fortunately, or other wise, Marwood’s master at the Palace of Whitehall, Williamson, tasks Marwood with discovering the body’s identity.

The Ashes of London gives us the story of Marwood’s investigation, in Marwood’s own words, but it isn’t the only tale. Half of the novel focuses on Cat, a young woman with dreams of designing a new London with grand buildings and regal avenues, but who, in reality, must deal with being the poor ward of her rich uncle Master Alderley and all that this entails. It isn’t long before Cat is on the run for her life, taking us with her across a London devastated by fire.

This is a novel that builds slowly following its hugely striking and evocative opening chapter set outside the burning St Paul’s. For a short while I found it a little hard to follow all the threads and keep track of the names. But this is because London has become a place in which almost everyone has something to hide. The legacy of the Civil War, Cromwell’s rule and, most particularly, the execution of Charles I and his son’s determined pursuit of his killers, divides families. Both Marwood and Cat must pay the consequences for the actions of their fathers. Once this becomes clearer, The Ashes of London becomes a thoroughly immersive read. There are so many layers of feeling here. The similarities between Cat and Marwood are striking, although the fact that Cat is a woman makes all the difference to her story. Marwood is able to work for a living. There are few options open to Cat. But she is no passive victim. There are moments when she made my jaw drop with her ferocity and determination. I really liked Cat.

Andrew Taylor’s portrait of this poor, suffering London is brilliantly done and we move around the city freely. Equally well done is the dark mood that overhangs the novel. This is not just the result of the murder hunt but also because of the weight of the past. This is not a city at peace, despite the glory of the Restoration, and the fire is almost a physical reflection of the city’s inner torment, endured by people such as Marwood and Cat. And at times there is something of the melodramatic and gothic about the novel’s events, notably in its fantastic final section. My one complaint is that occasionally I was thrown out of the book by phrases being repeated on the same page. But this is a very minor point.

The Ashes of London is such an enjoyable, elegant novel, richly evocative of the time and place. There is hope to confront the despair of the past, represented by London’s rebuild. It’s so good to see characters such as Christopher Wren come and go. The mystery is a really good one but I also liked the way in which Andrew Taylor slowly delves into the lives of his characters, revealing more and more as the novel goes on. It’s a fascinating investigation into an extraordinary time in English history. The Civil War and the Restoration are among my favourite periods of history and this book made me think about them in a whole way. It also made me wonder about what the fire itself would have been like for such a large proportion of London’s population. I love it when historical fiction makes me want to explore further, on foot as well as through books, and The Ashes of London did just that.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Publisher: Century
Pages: 368
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Plague by C.C. HumphreysReview
A serial killer stalks the streets of London, stabbing gems into the mouths of the slaughtered. With murder, though, walks a friend – plague. The year is 1665 and the city reels under an onslaught of murder, poverty and disease. On the fringes dance the rich. The newly restored monarchy, epitomised by the bewigged and hedonist Charles II, is surrounded by fellow pleasure-seekers who jig their way through the reopened theatres. Everyone, from King to actor, thief and pauper remembers the recent wars. They have left their mark and in many cases a debt.

Captain Coke is a gentleman but he is also a highwayman, albeit one with a bulletless pistol. He does good, adopting as his own his rather gormless apprentice Dickon, teaching the boy to read using sensationalist leaflets, the only literature the boy is interested enough to struggle through. When Coke discovers the bodies of his next intended victims slaughtered upon the highway, he finds one just alive, a young woman who dies in his arms. He flees but he cannot forget. Although Coke should hide, particularly once the thief-taker Pitman catches his scent, he is unable to resist the pleas of friend Sarah Chalker, whose husband John, an actor, is missing.

And all the time, more and more houses are sealed up, their inhabitants locked inside, keeping company the corpses of their relatives killed revoltingly by the hungriest of plagues.

Plague is rich in atmosphere, you can almost smell the stink of the stews and the sickly perfume of the rich. Much of the novel is spent in the poorer streets of the city or in its theatres among the actors and their audience. It’s a far from glamorous society with actresses preyed upon by nobles but it is a world away from the horror of the squalid rooms where the sick die of plague or the tortured die of agony. There are some wonderful cameos here, especially the King and his libertine poet Rochester. I also thoroughly enjoyed the conflicted character of Captain Coke. This is a man who is tormented by his memories from the recent wars – after what he’s gone through how can he live a normal life? Pitman, too, is an interesting character, especially once he has formed a partnership with his prey, but it is Coke, painfully haunted, who stands out for me. Amongst the many believable men and women, though, there are melodramatic, sinister figures, not least the man that Coke must chase.

This is a violent novel and, not surprisingly considering its subject matter, it is exceedingly grim in places. C.C. Humphreys does not flinch from his depictions of murder, torture or plague symptoms. I liked the historical setting enormously and much of the characterisation and narrative but it did cross my squeamish barrier at places, although admittedly it is not a barrier set high. I do think, though, that Plague will be much enjoyed by readers of historical crime fiction.