Soot by Andrew Martin

You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!

Let’s start with the plot, then. In August 1798, Matthew Harvey, a painter of silhouettes, is found dead – stabbed with his own scissors – in his house in Coney Street, York. Assuming that suicide can be ruled out, the only suspects are the six sitters who visited him during the previous week. The problem is, the page on which Harvey recorded their names has been torn out of his ledger, so that the only remaining clues are Harvey’s private duplicates of the silhouettes – or ‘shades’, as they are known.

Fletcher Rigge, a young gentleman who has found himself in financial difficulties, has spent three months in debtors’ prison in York Castle when he is approached by Captain Harvey, the silhouette-maker’s son. The Captain makes him an offer he can’t refuse: he will arrange Rigge’s release from prison, on the condition that Rigge can identify the people in the shades and help to track down the murderer. Rigge has previously used his detection skills to locate a missing book while working at Skelton’s Bookshop – this is what brought him to the Captain’s attention – but finding a killer could prove to be somewhat more difficult than finding a book…

As Rigge attempts to trace the people in the silhouettes, his search brings him into contact with a variety of colourful characters, including the clever and resourceful Maria Sampson, the temperamental young actor Jeremiah Smith – and my favourite, the London-based author Samuel Gowers, a proud, pompous man with an unfortunately large nose which lends itself to some comic scenes à la Cyrano de Bergerac. Rigge himself is another intriguing character, described at the beginning as having ‘a lowness of spirits, offset by a mordant wit and a prideful obstinacy’. Due to the structure of the book (more on that shortly) I was never quite sure exactly how reliable his narration was, but I did end up liking him and enjoyed accompanying him on his travels around York and beyond.

Georgian York provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel, particularly when covered in a blanket of snow (Rigge’s investigations take place in winter). From the slums of First Water Lane, home to Captain Harvey, to the Theatre Royal, the Black Swan coaching inn and the elegant townhouse belonging to one of the suspects, everything is vividly described. The language used in the book is appropriate for the 18th century too; I could tell the author had taken a lot of care to try to choose the right words and turns of phrase. This is particularly important because the book is presented as a collection of authentic documents gathered together by attorney-at-law Mr Erskine and sent to the Chief Magistrate of York.

Most of the novel is in the form of extracts taken from Fletcher Rigge’s own diary, but there are also diary entries written by Captain Harvey’s mistress Esther, newpaper reports, interviews with witnesses conducted by Erskine’s clerk, Mr Bright, and commentary from Erskine himself. Andrew Martin uses this structure very effectively to keep the reader guessing and wondering which accounts are reliable and which are not. The solution to the mystery is certainly not as black and white as Matthew Harvey’s shades!

Soot is a great book. At first Fletcher Rigge’s story reminded me of Thomas Hawkins’ in The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it quickly developed into something different and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Now I’m hoping for a sequel!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom

sovereign-cj-sansom Sovereign is the third in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series set in Tudor England and I found it every bit as good as the first two. The front cover states that it is “So compulsive that, until you reach its final page, you’ll have to be almost physically prised away from it”. Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was certainly a gripping story and while I’m not sure that it really needed to be over 600 pages long, I never found myself getting bored.

The novel opens in 1541, as Henry VIII embarks on his Progress to the North, a state visit with the aim of allowing those who rebelled during the recent Pilgrimage of Grace to make their formal apologies to the king. The royal progress is heading for York – and so are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak. Officially, Shardlake will be dealing with petitions to the king made by the people of York, but he has also been given another task to carry out. An important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, is due to be brought from York to London, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, has asked Shardlake to take responsibility for Broderick’s welfare as he doesn’t want the prisoner to die before he can be questioned in the Tower.

Shortly after arriving in York, the murder of a glazier leaves Shardlake in possession of a chest of documents which, if they fall into the wrong hands, could be used to destroy the king. Shardlake barely has time to look at the documents before they are stolen again, but the little bit of knowledge he has gained puts his own life at risk. To make matters worse, he and Barak stumble upon a liaison between the king’s wife, Catherine Howard, and one of her courtiers, Thomas Culpeper; it seems that danger is closing in on them from all sides.

The first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was set in a monastery, and the next, Dark Fire, took us into the heart of Tudor London; Sansom did a wonderful job of bringing those settings to life and he does the same here with York, capturing the mood of the people in the aftermath of a failed rebellion – people whose political and religious beliefs are not necessarily in alignment with the king’s. I enjoyed reading about the preparations for the arrival of the Progress and what was involved in providing food, accommodation and other amenities for not just the king and queen, but also their entourage of hundreds of courtiers, attendants and servants.

If you haven’t read the previous two books, I don’t think it’s completely necessary as this one does work as a standalone mystery with a beginning, middle and end, but I think I would still recommend reading them in order. There are some recurring characters in the series and it would be best to get to know them from their first appearance.

Barak came into the series in the second book, Dark Fire, and his relationship with Shardlake continues to develop in this book, but it also becomes strained after he falls in love with Tamasin Reedbourne, a servant in Queen Catherine’s household. There is no woman in Shardlake’s life and it does seem that he is jealous of Barak’s relationship with Tamasin – not because he’s attracted to Tamasin himself but because he resents his friend having another attachment. Shardlake comes across as quite a lonely person, I think, which is understandable as he has spent a lifetime being shunned for having a hunched back. He suffers a lot of cruel jibes and ridicule during his time in York, including a humiliation at the hands of the king, which completes the disillusionment with Henry which has been growing in him since Dissolution.

I have barely mentioned the actual mystery yet, but I can assure you that Shardlake does have a mystery to solve in this novel. It centres around a conspiracy dating back to the days of Edward IV and Richard III and I found this element of the story interesting as it showed the extent to which information relating to the Plantagenets was suppressed and covered up by the Tudors. For me, though, the mystery was secondary to the characters and the vivid Tudor setting.

I think this was probably my favourite of the Shardlake novels so far, but I still have another three to read and am planning to continue soon with the fourth one, Revelation.

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

The Edge of Dark I enjoy reading time-slip novels; I love the sense of the supernatural, the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and the intertwining of two lives – one past and one present. Pamela Hartshorne has written three novels of this type (the other two are Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight) but this one is the first I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it an entertaining, compelling and genuinely eerie read and I’m now looking forward to going back and reading her earlier novels.

The Edge of Dark is the story of Roz Acclam who, at the beginning of the novel, is preparing to start a new job as Events Director at Holmwood House, a recently restored Elizabethan building in York. This is not the first time Roz has been to York; she lived there as a small child until most of her family died in a fire and she was adopted by an aunt in London. She remembers nothing of the fire or her tragic childhood, but almost as soon as she arrives in York, memories begin to come flooding back – the only problem is, they are not her own memories but those of another woman who lived more than four hundred years earlier.

The Edge of Dark is also the story of Jane, the eldest daughter of a butcher who lived in York in the 1500s. Jane’s father is planning ambitious marriages for both of his girls and Jane soon finds herself married off to the handsome, wealthy Robert Holmwood. Joining her new husband at Holmwood House, she discovers that married life is not quite what she’d expected and she begins to long for a child of her own. But Jane’s desire to be a mother eventually grows so strong that she makes a promise she could live to regret.

As Roz tries to settle into her new job the flashbacks into Jane’s life become more frequent and she begins to question why she is having these experiences. Is Holmwood House haunted? Are Jane’s ordeals in the past somehow connected with Roz’s own problems in the present? And what really happened the night the Acclams’ house was set on fire?

Usually when I read a novel set in two time periods I find that I prefer one over the other – as I love historical fiction it tends to be the one set in the past. With this book, Roz’s story and Jane’s are so closely linked that it’s difficult to separate them; the transitions between past and present felt smooth and natural and I could easily become immersed in the lives of both women. Roz and Jane are both strong characters, but there are other interesting characters in each time period too. While some feel less developed than others, the two I found most memorable are (in the present) Helen, a jealous colleague who tries to cause trouble for Roz at work, and (in the past) Margaret Holmwood, Jane’s scheming mother-in-law.

I also liked the fact that the novel is set in York, a city I have visited many times and am quite familiar with. It was obvious that the book was written by an author who knows York, its streets and its buildings very well! Something else I found interesting was seeing what goes into opening a new tourist attraction to the public. I would have liked to have read more about Roz’s work – it sounded fascinating.

I realise I’ve come to the end of this review and haven’t mentioned the significance of the beautiful Tudor necklace on the front cover of the book, but I need to leave something for future readers to discover for themselves!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.