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.