Traitor in the Ice by KJ Maitland

Traitor in the Ice is the second book in KJ Maitland’s new historical crime series set in the early 1600s during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland. The first, The Drowned City, introduces us to Daniel Pursglove as he searches for a mysterious Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar in the aftermath of the failed Gunpowder Plot. That book is set in Bristol just after the devastating Bristol Channel Floods of 1607; Traitor in the Ice takes place the following winter – a particularly cold winter referred to as the Great Frost.

In these freezing, icy conditions a man has been found dead in the grounds of Battle Abbey in Sussex. The man was one of the King’s agents, sent to infiltrate the Montague household at Battle to try to root out those with Catholic sympathies. Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague is believed to be sheltering Catholic priests within the abbey walls, but the agent has been killed before having the chance to send his report to London. A replacement is needed, so Daniel Pursglove finds himself summoned by the King’s man, Charles FitzAlan, once more and sent to Battle to find evidence of treachery. He quickly discovers that almost everyone in the abbey has something to hide, but when more murders take place Daniel begins to wonder whether he is on the trail of the elusive Spero Pettingar at last.

One of the things I liked about the previous book in this series was the setting; I knew nothing about the Bristol floods and found the descriptions of the city in the aftermath quite eerie and otherworldly. The frozen landscapes of Sussex described in this second novel are equally atmospheric: the ‘withered brown bracken, each frond encased in its own ice-coffin’; the pink light of dawn ‘sending sparks of light shivering across the frost’. It’s the perfect setting for a murder mystery and Maitland weaves her usual mix of superstition and legend into the plot, adding to the sense of time and place. I was particularly intrigued by the practice of ‘night-creeping’, which Maitland explains in more detail in her very comprehensive author’s note at the end of the book.

I had hoped to learn more about Daniel Pursglove in this novel, but that doesn’t really happen and he is still very much a man of mystery by the final page. Although it’s not essential to have read the previous book first, I was pleased that I had as it meant I was familiar with at least some of Daniel’s background and wasn’t quite as confused as I might otherwise have been. I do like Daniel, though, and enjoyed following him through his investigations.

However, I had the same problem with this book that I had with the first one: there was just too much happening! The chapters set at Battle Abbey alternate with others set at court where through the eyes of two cousins, Richard and Oliver, we watch the rise to power of the King’s new favourite, Robert Carr. We also see Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, working to maintain his own influence over King James, while in the streets and taverns of London violence is brewing between gangs of local youths and the Scottish courtiers who are newly arrived in the city. All of this is very interesting, but too much for one book on top of the murders and the Catholic conspiracies! With a tighter focus on just one or two threads of the plot, I think this would be a much stronger series. Anyway, I did enjoy this second novel overall and will be looking out for a third one.

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

This is book 15/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

I am now halfway through my 20 Books of Summer list and obviously not going to finish all of the remaining books by the end of the month, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to read this one, The Sussex Downs Murder, as I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now and could never seem to find the right time to read it. It turns out that summer was the perfect time, as the story takes place in July…

The novel opens on a Saturday evening with John Rother saying goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and leaving their Sussex farm, Chalklands, to drive to Harlech in Wales for a holiday. He doesn’t get very far, however, and his car is found abandoned the next morning just a few miles away from the farm. John has disappeared, but there are bloodstains inside the car and signs of a violent struggle. Has he been killed? Kidnapped? Superintendent William Meredith is called in and when human bones are found in a delivery of lime from the Chalklands lime-kilns a few days later, it seems that he is dealing with a murder case.

In his careful, methodical way Meredith begins to investigate, examining every clue and interviewing every possible witness. He forms a theory almost immediately, but when a second crime occurs and proves him wrong, he is forced to think again, and slowly – too slowly for his Chief Constable who threatens to bring in Scotland Yard – starts to piece together what has happened.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore, is a popular author within the British Library Crime Classics series, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Originally published in 1936, it’s the second Superintendent Meredith novel and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more of them. I liked Meredith, although we don’t get to know very much about his background or personal life – apart from some great scenes with his son, Tony – and I appreciated the way his thoughts are shared with the reader, so that we can follow each step of his investigations and see in which direction the clues are leading him. I also liked the Sussex setting; it’s not an area that I know, but there’s a map at the beginning and all of the towns and villages, chalk hills and rings of trees – are real places and geographical features.

My only problem with this book was that the solution to the mystery was far too easy to guess; I had my suspicions from very early in the story and was proved right. I don’t usually manage to solve the crime before the detective does, so I wonder if other readers found this one particularly obvious too.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?