This is the fifth book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series and one of my favourites so far. Set in England during the reign of Charles II, each book in the series works as a separate mystery novel, but if it’s possible for you to read them in order (starting with The Ashes of London) you will have the pleasure of getting to know James Marwood and Cat Lovett from the beginning and watching their relationship develop.
The Royal Secret opens in 1670 with two young women plotting a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards, their target, Mr Abbott, meets his death under unusual circumstances. The dead man had been a clerk working in the office of Lord Arlington, Secretary of State, and James Marwood, also a government clerk, is asked to investigate. Beginning with a visit to Abbott’s lodgings to look for some confidential files the man had taken home from Arlington’s office, Marwood is soon on the trail of the mysterious Dutch merchant Henryk Van Riebeeck – a trail which will lead him first to the notorious Blue Bush Tavern and then to the home of Mr Fanshawe, owner of a captive Barbary lion called Caliban.
Meanwhile, Cat Hakesby, formerly Lovett, has taken over her late husband’s architect firm and has been given a commission by the king himself to design a poultry house for his sister Minette. Another of Cat’s clients is Mr Fanshawe and through him she meets Van Riebeeck, a man to whom she finds herself drawn romantically. Although she is unaware of it at first, Cat quickly becomes entangled in the same mystery that Marwood is trying to investigate, but with a very different perspective on what is happening.
Those of you who have read the previous books in the series will be familiar with Cat and Marwood’s uneasy relationship and their obvious attraction to each other which they seem unable to acknowledge even to themselves. That continues in this one and is becoming frustrating, but I’m grateful that Andrew Taylor didn’t just give us an instant romance that was resolved by the end of the first book. It’s another reason to keep reading the series!
As usual with Taylor’s books, the story unfolds against a backdrop of real historical events. In fact, they are often more than just a backdrop and become a significant part of the plot. In this particular novel, there is a focus on the political intrigue between England, France and the Dutch Republic, as well as on the tensions in the marriage between Charles II’s sister Minette (Henrietta Anne) and the Duke of Orléans, the king of France’s brother. These storylines take our characters to Paris where Minette has summoned Cat to discuss the designs for the poultry house and to Dover where secret negotiations are underway. With so much going on, as well as the mystery to be solved, this was a difficult book to put down and I was sorry to come to the end. I hope there’s going to be a sixth adventure for Marwood and Lovett!
Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 22/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.