1666 and a fire starts in London, soon to devastate the medieval City of London. Watching the flames, a young man notices a boy in a ragged shirt who is standing so close as to risk to his life. When he pulls the boy to safety, he finds it is not a boy but a young woman. She bites him and escapes, though he intends only to help. And so are introduced the two key characters in The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. But this is not a novel about the Fire of London, rather a political mystery involving murder in the turbulent years following the execution of King Charles I, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and subsequent Restoration of King Charles II.
In the ruins of St Paul’s a body is found, differing from other mortalities for its thumbs tied together behind the man’s back. This is the sign of those who committed Regicide by signing the death warrant of Charles I. Though in hiding, these traitors are still active, lurking in the shadows.
The account of London burning is written vividly, so vivid I could imagine myself there, smell the charred timber and smoke. We see it through the eyes of two people. James Marwood, clerk, son of a traitor, is required by his superiors to investigate on their behalf. Catherine Lovett, a wealthy young woman lodges with the family of her mother but secretly searches for her father, a Regicide. Her position becomes precarious when her uncle seeks to marry her to a suitable man, one she detests. She flees and, at risk of discovery, Cat hides her identity with a false name. She is a bright woman who adapts to her changing circumstances, has a great presence of mind and is not afraid to defend herself when threatened. I particularly enjoyed her interest in architecture, something which brings her into the wider circle of Master Hakesby and Dr (Christopher) Wren as the new design for St Paul’s takes shape. She has a skill of fine draughtsmanship, and helps Master Hakesby who suffers from the ague.
We learn the story as seen by Marwood and Cat; the author controls what we know and don’t know. As they are aware of other things happening outside their circle, but not of the detail – of surviving traitors helping each other, of powerful men borrowing and lending money, of the scientifically-minded Charles II and his circle of influencers – so the reader realizes more is going on behind the scenes than is written on the page. Which adds to the mystery. This was a complex political time. We watch Marwood tread a delicate path as he tries to protect his elderly weak-witted Regicide father from persecution whilst also obeying his employer, Master Williamson, editor of The London Gazette. It is a time of whispers, gossip in the coffee houses, of secret meetings and spies standing behind screens the better to eavesdrop.
The paths of Marwood and Cat almost cross a number of times and as neither knows the true identity or intentions of the other, the reader is in a privileged position. When they do meet, the outcome is unexpected.
This is not a page-turning thriller or a crime novel, more a historical mystery. Taylor takes time to develop his characters and to show his location, the Restoration context is fascinating. Though a slow-burn I read this book quickly, finishing it and wanting to read its sequel, The Fire Court. That is always a good sign.
‘The Ashes of London’ by Andrew Taylor, #1 Fire of London [UK: Harper Collins]
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