This is the second in Andrew Taylor’s new historical mystery series set during and after the Great Fire of London. The first book, The Ashes of London, set in 1666, deals with the Fire itself and the devastation it causes, as well as introducing us to our protagonists – James Marwood, son of a Fifth Monarchist, and Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide involved in the execution of King Charles I. It’s not completely necessary to have read The Ashes of London before beginning The Fire Court as they both work as standalone mysteries, but I would still recommend it.
In The Fire Court, we watch as London begins to rebuild in the aftermath of the Great Fire. With so much of the city destroyed, so many homes and businesses burned to the ground, there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done! Naturally, this gives rise to disputes between landlords and tenants, and disagreements as to how land should be redeveloped and who is responsible for paying for it. A special court is established to deal with all of this: the Fire Court.
At the beginning of the novel, James Marwood’s elderly father dies after falling beneath the wheels of a wagon in a London street, but not before he has time to tell James about a horrific discovery he made in one of the chambers of the Fire Court – the body of a murdered woman, with blood on her yellow gown. At first, Marwood dismisses these claims as the ramblings of an old, ill man, but when he begins to investigate he comes across some clues which suggest that maybe his father was telling the truth after all.
Marwood wants to find out more, but it seems that his employers – Joseph Williamson, the Under-Secretary of State, and William Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Private Closet – would prefer him to leave things alone. He can’t walk away now, though; he’s already much too deeply involved. Others have become caught up in the mystery too, among them Cat Lovett who, following the events of the previous novel, is now living in the household of her cousin Simon Hakesby, the architect – and another young woman, Lady Jemima Limbury, whose marriage, it appears, is based on lies and deceit. All of these people have a part to play in the mystery that unfolds and none of them know who to trust.
I enjoyed The Ashes of London, but I thought The Fire Court was even better. The plot was a complex, interesting one and with the focus on lawyers and court cases, it reminded me at times of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels, which I love. Being the second book in the series, I felt that both main characters – Marwood and Cat – are starting to feel more fully developed now. I sympathised with Marwood’s conflicting feelings for his father and the dilemma he faces when he is forced to choose between his two masters, Williamson and Chiffinch. As for Cat, she continues to be in a dangerous position should her true identity be discovered, so she has taken the name Jane Hakesby and is pretending to be her cousin’s servant. In her situation, you would think it would be a good idea to keep a low profile, but with her courageous and fiery personality, she does nothing of the sort! I really like the way the relationship between Marwood and Cat is progressing; it has taken a while, but they are beginning to trust each other and work together.
There are some interesting secondary characters in this book too, ranging from Marwood’s servant, Sam, who lost a leg in the wars against the Dutch, to the sinister Lucius Gromwell, in whose room the murdered woman was found. I particularly enjoyed reading about Jemima Limbury: her background and lifestyle are very different from Cat’s but the situation in which she finds herself is no easier to endure.
I’m looking forward to reading more books about James Marwood and Cat Lovett – and am assuming that there are going to be more, as they are being marketed as ‘a series’ which would suggest that there won’t just be two! Meanwhile, I still need to read my copy of Bleeding Heart Square, the only historical mystery by Taylor that I still haven’t read!