As someone who loves both historical fiction and mysteries, it’s not surprising that I also enjoy historical mysteries! If the book has an interesting and unusual setting, as this one has, even better.
The Royalist is the first in a planned series featuring the character of William Falkland. Falkland, as the title suggests, is a Royalist and has been fighting for King Charles in the English Civil War. As the novel begins in 1645, he has been captured by Parliamentarians and is in Newgate Prison awaiting his fate. When after several months of imprisonment a guard comes to take him from his cell, he is convinced that the day of his execution has arrived at last. To his surprise, though, he is taken instead to a meeting with Oliver Cromwell, the man with whom Parliament’s hopes of victory lie.
It seems that Cromwell has learned of a previous occasion on which Falkland stood up to his King to see that a criminal was brought to justice – and he is now hoping that Falkland will be able to solve a second crime, this time within Cromwell’s own New Model Army. Large, well-trained and highly disciplined, the New Model Army has been created with the aim of bringing a rapid end to the war. However, with men being pressed into the army regardless of their religious or political beliefs, discontent, disloyalty, fear and resentment are widespread. At the army’s winter camp in the town of Crediton in Devon, three young soldiers appear to have committed suicide – but why? This is what Falkland must agree to find out, in return for his own life.
I enjoyed The Royalist; it’s a very atmospheric book, taking us from a dark, cramped prison cell right into the heart of an army camp in the middle of a cold, harsh winter. This is the unusual setting I mentioned earlier; I’ve read other novels set during the Civil War, but none that focus specifically on the New Model Army. I knew almost nothing about the army before starting this book, and I found it fascinating, particularly the fact that even former Royalists were recruited, often against their will. It was also interesting to read about the ways in which the people of Crediton were affected by the army moving into their town and forcing them out of their homes.
This is not a book about an army on the move so there are (fortunately, in my opinion) no long battle scenes or discussions of military tactics; this is a book about an army that is stationary, based in one place, biding its time. That doesn’t mean there’s no action, of course! As Falkland continues to investigate and begins to uncover the truth about the young men who have died, he finds that he himself is in danger. There’s a lot of suspense as he explores the camp and its buildings in the dead of night, examines the tree where the three soldiers allegedly took their own lives, and tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted.
As the novel’s narrator, Falkland is the character we get to know best, but I still felt that there was plenty of information about his past that he was withholding from us and could reveal in a future novel. There are other interesting characters too: Thomas Fairfax, for example, the commander of the New Model Army and known as ‘Black Tom’ – one of the few real historical figures to appear in the book. There’s also Kate Cain, a woman who has refused to leave Crediton, and with whom Falkland lodges during his time in the town. And I was particularly intrigued by the character of Henry Warbeck, the man given the job of escorting Falkland to the army camp, as I discovered that there was more to him than met the eye at first.
I’m now looking forward to reading the second William Falkland novel, The Protector, which will be out later this year.