London, 1668 – A dangerous secret lies beneath Whitehall Palace…
HarperCollins|2 April 2020|419 pages|ebook |Review copy via NetGalley|4*
The Last Protector is the fourth book in Andrew Taylor’s series featuring James Marwood, a government agent and Cat (Catherine) Lovett, set in Restoration England. The year is 1668 and the exiled Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, heavily in debt, has returned in disguise to England.
Charles’ extravagant life style and licentious behaviour has now lost him the support of the people and many are hankering after the old days under Oliver Cromwell and then his son, Richard as Lord Protectors. He needs Parliament to vote him the funds to pay off his debts, maintain his court and fund the expansion of the navy and is relying on the Duke of Buckingham for support. However Marwood’s masters suspect that Buckingham is secretly conspiring against the King and assign him to spy on him.
Cat, a regicide’s daughter, is married to Simon Hakesby, an elderly and ailing surveyor and architect. She knew Richard’s daughter Elizabeth as a child and finds herself drawn into the Cromwells’ plan to recover a package Richard’s mother had hidden in the Cockpit in the gardens of the Palace of Whitehall just before her death; a package Richard hopes would be sufficient to clear his debts. He turns to the Duke of Buckingham for support in gaining access to the Cockpit. Buckingham is keen to use Richard in his plans to gain power. Cat, who now is unhappy in her marriage, resentful of Simon’s demands on her, is reluctant to get involved but unfortunately for her Simon is eager to help, and they soon find themselves in great danger. She is reluctant to ask for Marwood’s help fearing they could be charged with treason.
Like the earlier books in the series this is a gripping story, full of historical detail, complications, intrigue and danger. The characterisation is brilliant with memorable characters such as Ferrus, a mazer-scourer’s labourer, who lives a terrible life, forced to sleep in a kennel with Windy, a vicious dog that guards the kitchen yard at the Cockpit. Treated brutally by his master, Ezra Reeves, his job is to clean the sewers. He is starved so he can squeeze himself down unto the foul stinking mess of the sewers, bending his long thin arms and legs. The stench of London comes across very vividly in this novel. Then there is Chloris, the kind-hearted prostitute, who helps Marwood.
This is a book full of action too, with a swiftly moving plot and a climatic ending. It is full of suspense and surprises. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories.
I’ve read all the earlier books and loved them too – The Ashes of London (set in 1666, six years after Charles II was reinstated as King) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), and The King’s Evil (set seven months later). It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it really helps if you do.
Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.