Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

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Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

The Royalist 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.