Harper Collins UK| 29 April 2021| 476 pages| e-book| Review copy| 4*
From the No.1 bestselling author of The Last Protector and The Ashes of London comes the next book in the phenomenally successful series following James Marwood and Cat Lovett during the time of King Charles II.
Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.
Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.
Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe
I’ve read all of the previous Marwood and Lovett books, set in 17th century England, and thoroughly enjoyed each one, so I was delighted when Rachel Quin at HarperCollins asked me if I’d like a proof copy of The Royal Secret to review. It is the 5th book in the series and although it does work as a stand-alone book I do think it’s best to read them in sequence to get the full background of the Restoration period and the relationship between James Marwood and Cat Hakesbury (formerly Lovatt).
The year is 1670, two years have passed since the end of the previous book, The Last Protector. Cat Hakesby’s work as an architect continues after her husband’s death and after designing a poultry house for the young daughter of Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, she gains a commission to design one for Charles II’s sister, ‘Minette,’ the Duchess of Orléans. Meanwhile Marwood is a government clerk clerk to Joseph Williamson and also working for Lord Arlington. They find themselves involved in a complicated situation that is full of danger.
Marwood is instructed to investigate the mysterious death of Richard Abbott, one of Lord Arlington’s men, and retrieve some confidential papers from the victim’s home. Abbott’s step-daughter, Maria and the maid, Hannah have been dabbling in witchcraft and Maria believes she is responsible for his death. Marwood’s investigation brings him into contact with a merchant, Mr Fanshawe (also one of Cat’s clients) and through him with a mysterious Dutch gentleman, Henryke Van Riebeeck. Van Riebeeck just happens to be Anna Abbott’s brother, and Fanshawe’s son was Anna Abbott’s first husband and the father of Maria. After Abbott’s death she and Maria together with Hannah had gone to live in Fanshawe’s house. Fanshawe is an interesting character, who has recently bought a lion, who he named Caliban, a mangy bad-tempered beast that he keeps in the stables at his house in Slaughter Street.
So, Cat and Marwood are both involved with the same people, although in different circumstances. Their relationship is somewhat ambiguous. She is a strong-minded woman, a widow who values her independence in a society where women, although used to running households and dealing with their families’ financial matters, were only just beginning to find a place in society outside the home. And she doesn’t welcome Marwood’s interference in her life. That the two of them are attracted to each other is not acknowledged by either of them – especially, in this book, when Cat finds herself drawn romantically to Van Riebeeck. Her work takes her to the Royal Court in Paris to discuss her designs for the poultry house, although Minette seems more concerned with political matters and Cat wonders what the real reason for her visit is.
This is a well researched historical novel, mixing fact and fiction, bringing the streets of London and the royal court in Paris to life. At the same time it presents a mystery full of political intrigue, danger and conspiracy, involving witchcraft, poisonings, and tricky international relationships. It is only towards the end of the book that the royal secret is revealed – and I had had no idea until then what it was. I do hope there will be a sixth book for Marwood and Lovatt.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.