The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

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.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

The Last Protector is the latest addition to Andrew Taylor’s wonderful Marwood and Lovett series set in England during the Restoration. It’s now 1668, and Charles II, restored to his throne eight years earlier, is beginning to lose the support of the people due to the extravagance of his lifestyle and the immoral behaviour of his courtiers. Many are starting to long for the days of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard – and when Richard returns (in disguise) from exile, he becomes the centre of a conspiracy into which James Marwood and Cat Lovett are drawn.

At the beginning of the novel, government agent Marwood, still working for Joseph Williamson, Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington, is sent to spy on a duel between Lord Shrewsbury and the Duke of Buckingham, who is believed to be plotting against the king. Unfortunately, Marwood is seen by Buckingham’s men, making him a target of the Duke. Meanwhile, Cat, now married to the elderly architect Simon Hakesby (and not really enjoying the experience) has a chance encounter with a young woman she hasn’t seen for years. The woman’s name is Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of Richard, the last Protector. Richard has become caught up in Buckingham’s plans to gain power and he wants Cat and Simon to help him. In this way, Cat and Marwood are both pulled, via different routes, into the same circle of events and their two separate storylines become entwined.

This is the fourth book in the series and I would recommend reading them all in order if you can (the previous books are The Ashes of London, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil). It’s not really essential as the novels do all stand alone to a certain extent, but Marwood and Cat have a complex relationship and I think it’s best to follow their stories from the beginning. They don’t seem to have as many opportunities to interact in this book as they do in the earlier ones, but the occasions when their paths do cross are always worth looking forward to.

As usual, there’s also an interesting collection of secondary characters to get to know. One of the many things I enjoy about this series is the way the books incorporate both the lives of the nobility and the lower classes and there are two characters in particular who stand out this time: Ferrus, the ‘mazer-scourer’, a tall, skinny man whose job it is to squeeze himself down sewers to clear blockages underground, and Chloris, a kind-hearted prostitute who does her best to help Marwood despite her humble position in life.

Compared with the previous three novels, this book is more of a thriller than a mystery, still with plenty of twists and turns to the plot. And of course, the atmosphere and attention to detail are excellent, bringing to life the London of the period as the city continues to rebuild following the Great Fire of 1666. I hope there’s going to be a fifth book, especially as there’s a certain development towards the end of this one that has left me wondering what the future might hold for Cat and Marwood.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

The King’s Evil is the third in Andrew Taylor’s series of historical mysteries set during and after the Great Fire of London and featuring the characters of James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The first two, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court, were both excellent books so I had high expectations for this one as well, and I’m pleased to say that I think this might be my favourite of the three. If you’re new to the series, I don’t think it’s completely necessary to read the books in order but I would still recommend that you do so if possible.

‘The King’s Evil’ is another name for scrofula, a disease which causes the swelling of glands in the neck. Historically, it was believed that a touch from the king could cure the disease and as the novel opens we see James Marwood watching a ceremony at Whitehall where sufferers are being brought one by one to receive the touch of King Charles II. Marwood himself does not have scrofula, but is using the ceremony as cover for a rendezvous with Lady Quincy (a woman we first met in The Fire Court, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s best to read the series from the beginning).

Lady Quincy warns Marwood that his friend, Cat Lovett – who, as the daughter of a regicide responsible for the execution of Charles I, is in hiding under an assumed name – has been located by her stepson Edward Alderley. Worried that Edward is planning to take revenge on Cat after the events of The Fire Court, Marwood hurries to her hiding place to tell her she is in danger. Before Edward can do anything, however, he is found dead in a well in the grounds of the Duke of Clarendon’s London mansion. Cat, using her new identity of Jane Hakesby, has been helping the architect Simon Hakesby with his work on a garden pavilion at Clarendon House, and suspicion falls on her as the murderer. Marwood is asked to investigate on behalf of the government but, although those in power want him to find Cat guilty, he is sure she is innocent and must find a way to prove it.

This series is getting better and better. We are moving further away from the time of the Great Fire now, but its effects are still being felt across London as rebuilding takes place and people try to move on with their lives. The aftermath of the fire is less important to the plot of this novel than it was to the previous two, though, with the focus this time on the royal court and the question of who will succeed to the throne if Charles II fails to produce a legitimate heir. The king’s brother James and his two daughters are currently next in line, placing James’s father-in-law, the Duke of Clarendon, in a position of power. As Marwood begins to look into the circumstances of Edward Alderley’s death, he finds himself caught up in a rivalry between Clarendon and one of the king’s favourites, the Duke of Buckingham. Andrew Taylor is so good at blending fact and fiction, so that the fictional events of the story feel quite plausible within the context of the period and the murder mystery fits smoothly into the history and politics of the time.

When I read the first book, I mentioned that I didn’t find James Marwood a particularly strong character, but after three books he feels much more real to me now. I love his relationship with Cat – it’s not what you could describe as a romance and sometimes not even really a friendship, but it’s clear that there is still a strong bond between them. I enjoy spending time with both of them and am hoping it won’t be too long before they are back with another mystery to solve!

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor is one of my favourite authors of historical mysteries and after reading his latest one, The Fire Court, earlier this year, I remembered that I still had Bleeding Heart Square to read.

The novel opens in London in 1934 with Lydia Langstone, stepdaughter of the wealthy Lord Cassington, walking out on her violent and brutal husband. Armed with her copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lydia heads straight for Bleeding Heart Square, home to her father, Captain Ingleby-Lewis. The Captain isn’t entirely respectable and neither is the address, but Lydia doesn’t care – she just needs somewhere to stay until she can build a new, independent life for herself.

Another new resident of Bleeding Heart Square is Rory Wentwood, a young man who has recently returned from India to find that his girlfriend, Fenella, is no longer interested in marrying him. Rory still cares about Fenella, though, and when he hears about the disappearance of her aunt, Philippa Penhow, several years earlier, he decides to uncover the truth. The house at Bleeding Heart Square had belonged to Miss Penhow until she signed it over to the current owner, Joseph Serridge, before supposedly going to live in America. Rory has his doubts and has taken a room in the house so that he can investigate further.

When a number of foul-smelling parcels addressed to Mr Serridge begin to arrive at Bleeding Heart Square, the residents are both disgusted and intrigued. The packages contain rotten hearts neatly wrapped in brown paper and are obviously intended as a message to Mr Serridge – but who is sending them and why? What really happened to Philippa Penhow? And why is a policeman watching the house? Lydia teams up with Rory to try to find the answers, while doing her best to avoid her abusive husband.

Bleeding Heart Square is a mystery novel, but it is also a fascinating portrayal of life in 1930s London, with a particular focus on the rise of the fascism movement in Britain. One of the most memorable scenes in the book involves a meeting of the British Union of Fascists which descends into chaos when a few brave voices dare to question the party’s policies and are forcibly removed by Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted supporters. I found this aspect of the book interesting because of course with World War II on the horizon, fascism would soon become forever associated with Hitler and Mussolini and not something decent people would want to be part of – but here we see respectable people taking Mosley’s views seriously and considering giving him their support. It’s frightening to think of how different things could have been, and also still frighteningly relevant today.

Despite the 1930s setting, however, I thought the plot and the characters seemed much more suited to the Victorian period – there was a definite Dickens influence and in fact Bleeding Heart Yard appears in Little Dorrit. If you removed the fascism storyline, the rest of the novel could easily have been set in the 19th century; I was taken by surprise every time somebody got into a car as I felt it should have been a horse and carriage!

I liked both Lydia and Rory and found their personal stories so interesting that the central mystery felt almost secondary – although I was intrigued from the start by the brief diary entries and the comments by an unknown narrator that open every chapter. What will we learn from the diary and who is the narrator talking to? The ending of the book, in which the truth is revealed, was unexpected, but maybe there were clues from the beginning if I had been paying more attention!

Bleeding Heart Square isn’t my favourite of Andrew Taylor’s books – that would be The American Boy – but I did enjoy it and now that I’ve read all of his historical mysteries I’m wondering which of his other books I might like. Any recommendations are welcome!

This book counts towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).
I am also counting it towards the What’s In a Name? challenge – a book with a shape in the title.

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

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!

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London I always look forward to new books by Andrew Taylor, having enjoyed several of his others in the past. His last two novels, The Scent of Death and The Silent Boy, both featured the same characters (Edward Savill, an 18th century London clerk, and his family) and I had expected there to be more books in that series. However, The Ashes of London is something different: it’s set more than a century earlier – during the Great Fire of London of 1666 – and introduces us to a completely new set of characters.

Our narrator, James Marwood, is the son of a Fifth Monarchist who has recently been released from the Tower of London. All Marwood wants is a quiet life and the opportunity to escape the taint of his father’s disgrace – but as the flames begin to rage across London, it seems that fate has something else in store for him. While he watches St Paul’s Cathedral burn, a young woman runs past towards the fire, taking Marwood’s cloak with her. Later, a dead body is found in the ashes: a man with his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood, who works for the government, is given the job of investigating the death.

Running parallel with his story is that of Catherine (Cat) Lovett, daughter of a regicide who was involved in the execution of King Charles I and who has been on the run since the restoration of the monarchy. As more dead bodies are discovered in the aftermath of the fire, it seems that Cat must be connected to the deaths in some way…and it’s up to Marwood to find out how.

I don’t think The Ashes of London is one of Andrew Taylor’s best books (my favourite is still The American Boy), but I did enjoy reading it. While I didn’t find it quite as atmospheric as some of his other novels, the setting was certainly a fascinating one. Not only do we witness the destruction of a city by fire and share the sense of loss felt by those who lived there, we are also given the chance to learn something about the political situation in London at that time. I previously knew almost nothing about the Fifth Monarchists, a religious sect who even during the Restoration were plotting to overthrow the monarchy and prepare for the coming of King Jesus, so I found that aspect of the story very interesting.

I enjoyed getting to know both of our main characters, James Marwood and Cat Lovett. Marwood is not a particularly memorable character in himself, but he interested me due to his background and ties with the Fifth Monarchists and regicides. Cat is a strong, independent person who knows how to look after herself, and while I couldn’t quite believe in her as a realistic 17th century woman, her actions do help to drive the plot forward. Apparently this book is the first in a new series, so I expect – and hope – that we will meet both James and Cat again.

Overall, I found The Ashes of London a good Andrew Taylor novel, if not a great one. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series, but while I’m waiting for it I would like to go back and read Bleeding Heart Square, the only one of his historical novels I still haven’t read yet.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

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Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)

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There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)

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So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

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Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)

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Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)

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“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)

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The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow

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“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

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Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell