The Bear Pit by S G MacLean

Bear Pit

Quercus/ 11 July 2019/Paperback/ 416 pages/ Review copy/ 5*

S G MacLean is one of my favourite authors of historical fiction, so I was delighted to read her latest book, The Bear Pit.  It is the fourth book in her Damien Seeker series, set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. I’ve read the previous three books. Reading them takes me back to England in the 17th century, a time and a place full of danger and unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones, I think it would help to follow the progression of events if they are read in order.

This one begins in September 1656 as three men are waiting for Oliver Cromwell to emerge from Westminster Abbey on his way to the State Opening of Parliament in Parliament House. Their plan to assassinate Cromwell had been in preparation in Cologne and Bruges for a year and a half, but that day it was thwarted. However, they will not give up.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. Thurloe is floundering under all the reports from the Continent about plots against Cromwell’s life and to reinstate Charles Stuart as King. He tells Seeker until they have corroboration of the rumours they don’t have the time or capability to look into the matter. Not wanting to go against Thurloe’s orders, Seeker decides to take part in a raid on an illegal gaming house which ends with the discovery of the body of an elderly man chained to the wall by his neck and half eaten, obviously ravaged by a bear. But bear baiting had been banned and all the bears had been shot recently – or so it was claimed. Where had the bear come from and why was the man killed? And what connection, if any, does the murder have to the plots to kill Cromwell?

Like all good historical fiction The Bear Pit blends historical fact and fiction. There was indeed a plot to assassinate Cromwell in the autumn and winter of 1656 as described in the novel, whereas the mystery of the man killed by a bear and the subsequent search for the bear’s whereabouts are fictional. 

Some of the things I enjoy in this book are the return of characters from the earlier books -Sir Thomas Faithly, Lawrence Ingoldby, Manon, Marie Ellingworth, to mention just a few, and the glimpses we see of other historical figures – such as John Evelyn, a young Samuel Pepys, the poet Andrew Marvell as well as John Milton and one of my favourite historical figures when I was at school – Prince Rupert of the Rhine. I was fascinated by the details of The Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled by John Tradescant and his son, in Tradescant’s Garden in South Lambeth. In her Author’s Note S G MacLean states that these were indeed, very much in existence and were open for business as well as being a public attraction. The remains of the collection are held in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. 

S G MacLean is a wonderful storyteller and her books are full of authentic detail skilfully interwoven in the stories without holding up the action. The Bear Pit is a fast-paced book, full of action and danger and wonderful characters, especially in the figure of Damien Seeker. He is the hero of the book – strong, dedicated to his work, indefatigable in his search of the truth and loyal to his friends and colleagues. The atmospheric setting complements the plot – the streets of London in winter, the cold, fog and damp and in particular Bankside in Southwark and the eerie atmospheric wastes of Lambeth Marsh. I was completely absorbed in the book. I found it compelling reading both the murder mystery and the assassination plot gripped me and I raced through it, eager to find out what happened. I was absolutely incredulous at the ending though, but it does give me hope that there may be fifth Damian Seeker novel.

Many thanks to the publishers, Quercus, for my review copy via NetGalley.

A Snapshot of Murder by Frances Brody

A Snapshot of Murder (Kate Shackleton #10)

 

Crooked Lane Books |19 April 2019|Print length 339 pages|e-book review copy|3*

Blurb (Amazon):

Yorkshire, 1928. Indomitable sleuth Kate Shackleton is taking a well-deserved break from her detective work and indulging in her other passion: photography. When her local Photographic Society proposes an outing, Kate jumps at the chance to visit Haworth and Stanbury, in the heart of Brontë country, the setting for Wuthering Heights.

But when an obnoxious member of their party is murdered, the group is thrown into disarray. Is the murderer amongst them, or did the loud-mouthed Tobias have more enemies than they might have imagined?

Armed with her wit and wiles, and of course her trusty camera, it’s up to Kate to crack the case, and get that perfect shot too . . .

A Snapshot of Murder by  Francis Brody is the 10th in her Kate Shackleton series. I’ve read three of her earlier books and I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much. I think, though, that the setting is excellent, particularly in Haworth when the Bronte Parsonage Museum was opened in 1928. But I was disappointed to find that the murder could have taken place anywhere – it no connection to the Brontes, or to the opening of the Museum, apart from the fact that the murderer took advantage of being in a crowd of people and managed to slip away unnoticed. 

I like Kate Shackleton – she’s a competent private investigator, but the murder mystery was too easy to solve. It began well but it was obvious who was going to end up dead and although there are several suspects, it soon became obvious who the culprit was and my interest waned. And any sympathy I had for the murderer had just disappeared by the end of the book.

My thanks to the publishers, Crooked Lane Books for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Seeker by S G MacLean

The Seeker (Damian Seeker, #1)

Quercus/ 9 May 2016/Paperback/ 432 pages/ Library Book/ 4*

The Seeker by S G MacLean is the first book in her Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. This one is set in 1654. I’ve read the second and third books in the series and whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones now I’ve read the first one I think it would have better if I had read them in order.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. He is an enigmatic character, and very little is revealed about his background until very near the end of the book. In the later books, particularly in the third, Destroying Angel, I learnt a lot more about him.

Like the later books The Seeker transported me to another time and place. It was as though I was back in England in the 17th century, a place of unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Agents, sometimes clergymen or merchants, working for Cromwell, infiltrated the Royalists abroad supporting the future Charles II; the universities too were useful with dons expert at deciphering coded messages, and there was a highly effective postal service intercepting mail to suspect individuals before being resealed and delivered. And in London, bookshops, taverns and coffee houses were places where conversations were overheard and reported to the authorities.

England in 1654 is a Republic in name only, Parliament had been dissolved in 1653 and Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector – King in all but name, he lived in the former Palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court and his generals imposed even greater restrictions on the freedoms of the public.

It’s a complex novel, as Seeker investigates the murder of Lieutenant John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favoured officers in his New Model Army. He had found Elias Ellingworth, a radical lawyer and journalist, and an outspoken critic of Cromwell’s regime, standing over the bleeding body clutching a knife. But Seeker is not convinced of his guilt and thus the search for the real culprit begins. It takes in royalist plots, the slave trade, dodgy merchants’ deals and an attempt on Cromwell’s life. There are many characters and I had little idea who had killed Winter until right at the end, so I read eagerly trying to work it all out.

Having read three of  the series I particularly like Damian Seeker. He is definitely a man to have on your side, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust. The books are based on solid historical research (S G Maclean has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) bringing the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s to life before my eyes. I particularly liked all the detail about Kent’s Coffee House. I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanting to know more about the period and Cromwell I’ve bought Antonia Fraser’s book, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men.

The Bear Pit, the fourth book in the Seeker series, is due out on 11 July this year.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

London, 1667 – a royal scandal that could change the face of England forever…

The King's Evil

HarperCollins|4 April 2019|464 pages|Hardback |Review copy|5*

This is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series following James Marwood and Cat (Catherine) Lovett. I loved the first two – The Ashes of London (set in 1666) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), so I was delighted when Felicity Denham at HarperCollins asked me if I’d like a proof copy of The King’s Evil to review. It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it helps if you do.

The King’s Evil carries on from where The Fire Court ended. Seven years after the restoration of the monarchy it’s still a time of political and social change. Whilst Charles II still had immense power as the King a new middle class, both professional and administrative, was evolving. James Marwood is a government agent in Whitehall, working as a clerk for William Chiffinch, one of the commissioners of the Board of Red Cloth. Chiffinch was also Keeper of the King’s Private Closet and Page of the Backstairs, an important position as he controlled private access to the King. In addition Marwood also works under Joseph Williamson, the Undersecretary to the Secretary of State for the South, one of Charles’s most powerful ministers.

Charles had reinstated the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’ as a demonstration of his divine right to rule – a ceremony in which the monarch touched those people suffering from scrofula, a disease, now known as  tuberculosis, that caused the swelling of the bones and lymphatic glands in the neck (the book cover illustrates the ceremony). It was believed that the King’s touch cured the disease.

The novel begins as Marwood is in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall watching the ceremony. Chiffinch had told him to attend on the orders of the King to meet Lady Quincy and do whatever she commanded. Lady Quincy, accompanied by a small African child, her footboy suffering from scrofula, tells Marwood to meet her outside the church near the Tower of London. She also warns him that Edward Alderley, her step-son, is out for revenge on Cat Lovett because of what she had done to him. (This refers to events in The Fire Court). 

In order to keep her identity secret Cat, whose father had been one of the Regicides, is going by the name of Jane Hakesby. She had been working for Simon Hakesby, a surveyor and architect, on a garden pavilion project in the grounds of Clarendon House. Then Alderley is found dead in the well in the garden pavilion.

Marwood is asked to look into the circumstances of Alderley’s death, under the King’s authority. He decides to keep his connection with Cat to himself, whilst he tries to find out where she has gone and who was responsible for Adderley’s death. Was it an accident, was it suicide, or was it murder? After Chiffinch received an anonymous letter naming Cat as the murdererhe sent officers to arrest her, but she had disappeared. So this was taken as a confession of her guilt. Marwood was afraid that this could implicate him too if it became known that he had told her that Alderley knew her whereabouts.

In addition, Lord Clarendon is convinced that Alderley was involved in a conspiracy against him and also suspects that someone in his household is involved in the plot. He is out of favour with Charles, and had recently been removed from the office of Lord Chancellor.  But he’s still potentially politically powerful as his daughter is married to Charles’s brother, James, the Duke of York. His grandchildren, the Princesses Mary and Anne, are the next heirs in the line of succession if Charles remained childless.

Marwood tries to find Cat, and also escorts Lady Quincy to Cambridge on a secret mission. Eventually his investigation into Alderley’s death leads him to discover who is behind the plot against Clarendon, and also to uncover a potential royal scandal in which Lady Quincy and the Duke of Buckingham, one of Charles’s favourites who had supplanted Clarendon, play important roles. 

I loved the characterisation and all the details of the setting, bringing to life scenes at the royal court as well as in the refugee camps that housed the homeless as the work of rebuilding London continued. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories. The King’s Evil is historical fiction at its best, full of suspense and tension, an intricate and tightly plotted murder mystery, enhanced by the intrigue of a royal scandal. 

I loved it.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.

The Man on a Donkey by H F M Prescott

The Man on a Donkey

Apollo|2016|756 pages|e-book|3.5*

This was first published in 1952.

Description:

In 1536, Henry VIII was almost toppled when Northern England rose to oppose the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For a few weeks Robert Aske, the leader of the rebels, held the fate of the entire nation in his hand … An enthralling novel about a moment in history when England’s Catholic heritage was scattered to the four winds by a powerful and arrogant king.

Opening paragraph:

Sir John Uvedale had business at Coverham Abbey in Wensleydale, lately suppressed, so he sent his people on before him to Marrick, to make ready for him, and to take over possession of the Priory of St. Andrew from the Nuns, who should all be gone by noon or thereabouts. Sir John’s steward had been there for a week already, making sure that the Ladies carried away nothing but what was their own, and having the best of the silver and gold ornaments of the Church packed up in canvas, then in barrels, ready to be sent to the King. The lesser stuff was pushed, all anyhow, into big wicker baskets; since it would be melted down, scratches and dints did not matter.

My thoughts:

The Man on a Donkey is the longest book I’ve read this year and at times I thought it was overlong. It certainly is not a book to read quickly, as John Cooper writes in his Introduction it ‘requires persistence from the reader.’ Hilda Prescott (1896 – 1972) was a historian and biographer as well as a novelist and based this novel on documentary evidence relating to the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 led by Robert Aske, a lawyer. It was a protest against Henry VIII‘s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the policies of the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Related image

It’s written in the form of a chronicle, written from the various characters’ viewpoints. It’s as much about the ordinary people as the rich and powerful. There are many characters including many real historical people, such as Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Princess Mary and Thomas More amongst others. The two main characters are historical figures too – Robert (Robin) Aske and Christabel Cowper, the last Prioress of the Benedictine nunnery at Marrick in Yorkshire. They and the fictional characters came to life as I got used to their individual voices – some instantly likeable, such as Robin and Christabel despite their flaws and others so despicable. Henry VIII, a tyrant and Thomas Cromwell, a real villain, for example were much reviled as between them they created fear and terror in a totalitarian regime.

In fact this book is in line with much of what I had learnt of the period from history lessons at school, films, books and TV series up until I read Hilary Mantel’s books that portray a much kinder view of Cromwell. But just like Mantel’s books, this book transported me back to that time, with lyrical descriptions of the settings, both of the countryside and of the towns, of Marrick Priory and of the king’s court, of the people, and the mood of the times, both religious and political

The Pilgrimage of Grace was not a revolution against Henry but an attempt to get him to change his mind and to understand how people felt. They wanted Henry to stop the dissolution and his attacks on the monks and nuns and to return the country to following the Pope. There were several uprisings and thousands of people were involved, nobles as well as the ‘commons’. But it cost many people their lives in excruciating pain as they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

The source of the book’s title comes from the mystic, Malle, a  simple-minded young woman who the nuns had bought at a York market in the belief that she was a mermaid. She is a strange character who sees a vision of Christ riding on a donkey over a bridge across a stream in the Yorkshire countryside. Her visions and strange sayings continue to puzzle and frighten people throughout the book.

Reading A Man on a Donkey has reminded me that I have Tracy Borman’s biography of Thomas Cromwell still to read. It’s a detailed account of his life, subtitled ‘the untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant’. I wonder what this will reveal about Cromwell’s controversial  character?

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

A story of guilt, betrayal and secrets, set in colonial era Ceylon.

The Tea Planter's Wife

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies begins in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in 1913, with a scene showing a woman leaving a house, cradling a baby with one arm. She had left a letter behind and I wondered what was in that letter and about the significance of her choosing to wear her favourite dress – a vivid sea green dress she wore the night she was certain the baby was conceived. It didn’t become clear until nearly the end of the book.

Move on twelve years to 1923, when 19 year old Gwendolyn Hooper arrives at the same house, the home of a tea planter, Laurence, an older man, a widower she had met and married in England after a whirlwind romance. The house is set in beautiful flower-filled gardens, sloping down to a shining silver lake and rising up behind the lake a tapestry of green velvet made up of rows of tea bushes where women in brightly coloured saris were plucking the tea leaves. Gwen is enchanted by the scene and is eagerly anticipating her new life with Laurence.

But this is not the idyllic life she expected – there are secrets, locked doors and a caste system and culture that is alien to her. Laurence, no longer as passionate about her as he had been in England, leaves her alone more than she would like. But with the help of one of the servants, Naveen and Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese artist, she begins to settle into life on the plantation, even though it’s obvious that Laurence disapproves of Savi. In turn, Gwen is not happy about the way a glamorous American woman, Christina flirts with Laurence.

There is a mystery, too, surrounding the death of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife and when she finds a tiny overgrown grave no one wants to talk about it. The arrival of Laurence’s younger sister, Verity, only adds to Gwen’s problems – she’s bitter and twisted and it looks as though she has moved in permanently. So, when Gwen becomes pregnant she hopes that will improve her relationship with Laurence, especially as he is delighted that she is expecting twins. This is in many ways such a sad and tragic story – none more so than what happened when the babies were born and Gwen is faced with a terrible dilemma, one that she feels she must keep hidden from Laurence.

This is historical fiction set in a time and place that I know very little about, but I thought  the setting in Ceylon, was beautifully described, exotic and mysterious. It was a time of unrest too, with political and racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and the British plantation owners. Gwen was horrified by the living conditions of the plantation workers but her attempts to improve them and provide basic medical treatment weren’t very successful. I thought the portrayal of Gwen’s character was well done, a young woman with a charming husband, older than her and initially their relationship reminded me of Max and his second wife in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but the similarity ended there as the story developed.

In her Author’s Note at the end of the book (don’t read it before you read the book as it gives away the main secret) Dinah Jefferies explains that the idea for this novel came from her mother-in-law who told her stories passed down by her family, which included tea planters in Ceylon and also in India in the 1920s and early 1930s. They led her to think about the attitudes to race and the typical prejudices of that time – in particular about how such attitudes and assumptions could spell tragedy for a tea planter’s wife who lived an extraordinarily privileged life. She also includes a list of books that she had found useful whilst researching her book.

I’m not sure that I want to read any more of Dinah Jefferies’s books as although I did enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife and it held my interest to the end, I also thought much of it was predictable and in places a bit too sentimentally melodramatic for me.

  • Paperback: 418 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (3 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780241969557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241969557
  • Source: a library book
  • My Rating: 3.5*

Challenges:

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

The Glass Woman

Penguin UK Michael Joseph|7 February 2019 |400 pages|e-book |Review copy|3*